Recommended *** If Gaston Leroux’s novel, Phantom of the Opera, were set in a more pedestrian context within the city of Chicago, it would have to take place at “The Athenaeum Theatre.” The building is now over a hundred years old, and is the longest continuous running off-loop theatre. It has five performing spaces, including an elegant theatre that seats nearly 1,000 people, and many mysterious hallways and rooms that no longer appear to be in constant use. The theatre’s eeriness alone is well worth a trip. I attended “Owners” by British playwright Caryl Churchill in one the smaller studio theatres, but on a stage which, because it revolved, proved very flexible for a play which is set in four different places.
We are introduced to a cockney butcher, Clegg (Matt Castellvi) and the chronically suicidal Worsley (Christopher James Ash): his friend and wife Marion’s (Brynne Bernard) employee. In Clegg’s butcher shop in East London, they discuss Worsley’s various suicide attempts which are extremely serious and almost certainly genuine, if comically unsuccessful, and Worsley’s squeamishness about slaughtered meat which Clegg notes is entirely appropriate in the “fairer sex” but not in a man. Worsley is sent by Marion to persuade some of her new tenants, Alec (Matt Browning), Lisa (Abbey Smith) and their family, to move out of a building she has purchased. It seems as though she and Clegg both had a now long-dissolved friendship with Lisa and Alec. When they reunite, various parties begin adulterous relationships, Marion deceives Lisa into giving up her child, and Clegg decides that he wants to murder her wife because of her success and failure to depend upon and worship him, “as she swore before God to do,” so he turns to Worsley: his friend obsessed with death.
Near the beginning, when Worsley first pays a visit to Lisa, she is frantic expecting another baby, but Alec is stuck in a Zen-like and does not seem to care. At least, we are to assume it is Zen-like from the Zen epigram that Churchill includes in her script and which appears in our program. Likewise, I assume that Marion’s ruthless pursuit of material wealth and worldly success is supposed to be attributed to her Christian background when she exclaims “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as if to war” (also included as an epigram to the play) and asks “Doesn’t evolution say the same thing?” Personally, I’ve never found Western and Eastern theology to be so diametrically opposed. Compassion, not indifference, to the suffering of others set The Buddha on the path to Enlightenment, and there are certain Western sacred text, such as The Hebrew Bible, The New Testament, and The Holy Qur’an, that condemn the pursuit of material and worldly success, especially when in it is obtained at the expense of others. Nor do I understand what Ms. Churchill is trying to say about gender. Marion, the successful and independent woman, is neither sympathetic, nor moral (almost all the successful and independent women I know are) while Lisa, who yearns for a life based in more traditional gender roles, is both, at least more so than Marion, and Clegg’s character is simply ridiculous. I know some very misogynist men, but none of them would openly admit that they see the obligations within context of a traditional Christian, and yes patriarchal, marriage, as a one-way street (Even if that is how they almost always behave). Nor would any of them kill a dog that adored them for momentary disobedience, and find such satisfaction in it that they would ask their suicidal friend to kill their wife.
Hereagain, is a problem. Alec seems happy to help for no reason, but most suicidal people have no interest in hurting others: it is their own annihilation they long for, and given Alec ineptitude at achieving that, he seems a strange choice for a hit-man. Fortunately, director Jeffrey Stanton saw a good story with plenty humor, found gifted actors, and went with it, letting Churchill’s ideology speak for itself. As to the male actors, I would like to have seen Mr. Ash more tormented as Alec: this is a man who really does not want to live and, for all statements about being able to dispose of his own body as he sees fit, can’t seem to do anything about it. Mr. Catellvi seemed constantly confused with what to do with Clegg’s character (I would have been too), but he deserves credit for creating a certain amount of sympathy for his characters naiveté regarding gender and pathos when he speaks about killing his dog (however abhorrent his ideas and actions are in relation to both things). Ms. Bernard was superbly stately, clever, and driven as Marion, but Abbey Smith carried the show. She was capable of delivering the lines with desperation, suffering, and comedy all at the same time, and clearly spent a great deal of time and effort cultivating a dialect and mannerisms that make Lisa the most credible character in the show. With the exception of Castellvi’s cockney accent (which seems intended to be comic, strong, and recognizable, rather than realistic), I applaud dialect coach Lindsay A. Bartlett for the authenticity and variety of accents within this play. Anyone who has lived in England will realize that accents are not homogenous even among people in the same place, class, and even family. In fact, they sometimes will vary based on personality, and it was great to see that represented to an American audience on stage. Ultimately, this play doesn’t tell us much about the human condition, gender issues, or economic inequity, despite its attempts, but it is a great production, a good and fun, comic story, and in some ways, a convincing representation of 1970’s East London.
The Interrobang Theatre Project is producing “Owners” at The Athenaeum Theatre located at 2936 N. Southport Avenue. It is showing through November 4 with productions Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sunday’s at 2:00 pm. Regular Tickets are $15 while Student and Senior Tickets are $10, and can purchased by calling the box office at 312-902-1500 or, for a $2 registration fee, at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/9914104
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Owners”.