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The Target Is Capitalism
by Allan Appel | Oct 24, 2013 12:35 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater
Director Evan Yionoulis tells her acting students that when you get nose-to-nose on stage, you have to do one of two things: kiss or kill each other.
They’re doing a lot of both in her production of Caryl Churchill’s savage 1970s comedy Owners, which opens for previews at Yale Rep on Friday and runs through Nov. 16.
In a technical rehearsal Wednesday in the run-up to the opening, Yionoulis (pictured)in her 15th season with the Rep, spoke about doing doing her first Caryl Churchill production. She has picked a doozie.
Churchill is known for her feminist and gender-bending plays that challenge sexual conventions and capitalism, such as Cloud Nine that the Yale School of Drama did earlier this year. Owners was Churchill’s first play at the Royal Court, in effect the launch of her professional career after small and college productions.
And what a launch. The play has many Churchillian elements, particularly the protagonist Marion, a real estate predator who makes Donald Trump seem like a puppy dog. When she gets a yen to have Alec her old boyfriend back, she buys the North London building in which he resides. When he refuses to leave his pregnant wife Lisa, she in effect appropriates the child.
Another reason: Her disgusting husband, the butcher Clegg, would like a son and she physically is not going to go near the man. So she acquires. That gift doesn’t keep Clegg from plotting his wife’s death throughout the play.
What impressed Yionoulis was how Churchill takes ideas to their logical, or illogical, and very funny conclusions.
“The target is capitalism in a certain way. We equate capitalism with success and that way has filtered down to our personal lives. We look at our relationships and loves as possessions, and we long to be possessed,” she said.
While we generally accept that as a benign thing, Churchill takes it to an extreme and shows how wanting to own is a way of trying to overcome suffering in our lives, she said.
But this is no Buddhist fairy tell. Alec, Lisa’s husband, is Buddhist-esque, but in his non-attachment and trying to stay uninvolved through inaction he creates as much disaster as anyone.
His desire not engage infuriates Marion who did share an intense passion with him - before the play started, it would seem. As the first act draws to a close, she unloads with her credo in a speech to passive Alec:
To push on ... Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war. That was my favorite song when I was seven. Fight the good fight. Where’s your fight? We don’t shrink from blood or guilt ... Guilt is knowing what you do. I see the children with no shoes and socks in the houses I buy. Should I buy them socks? It would be ridiculous. But I feel it. that gritty lump is the pearl. Swine. And what would happen to work without guilt? I was never a lazy girl, Marion tries hard, I work like a dog. Mose women are the fleas but I’m the dog.”
Oddly, the moral center, if the play has one, is Worsely, played by Joby Earle, and a character nicely named. He tries to kill himself many times wracked by guilt at being Marion’s hired henchman but also intensely loyal to her.
But does he have a right even to do away with his own body? The only friend he makes in the play is a Good Samaritan, who never appears.
At the beginning of the second act Worsely and Clegg discuss the matter:
Worsely: Life is leasehold [says my befriender]. It belongs to God the almighty landlord. You mustn’t take your life because it’s God’s property not yours. I tell him if there’s anything I own it’s what I stand up in.
Clegg: That old suit?
Worsely: Flesh and blood. The contraption I am in. The contraption I am.
Before the scene is out, as the two men fumble at warming up milk for Lisa and Alec’s baby, which has been born and is now “owned” by Clegg, Worsely will take the sugar for tea, and decide to mix it with weedkiller, which Clegg is trying to use to poison Marion.
Sugar and weedkiller, it turns out, will also make an excellent bomb for Worsely to try and blow himself up, yet again.
The magic of a theatrical genius like Churchill is that she turns this kind of material into theatrical poetry, said Yionoulis.
“Becket, Pinter, and [John]Osborne are all in conversation with each other,” in Churchill’s first major play, Yionoulis said.
Have I mentioned the many attempts made on the life of the baby in the play?
This play is obviously not going to get the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but for those who like their truth wrapped in gallows humor and tied by a ribbon of ribaldry, it should be a treat.
Other actors not mentioned above include Sarah Manton as Lisa; Tommy Schrider as Alec; and Alex Trow as Mrs. Arlington and Alec’s mum.
Tags: Evan Yionoulis, Caryl Churchill, Yale Rep
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