By Owen Bryant
The turn of the 20th century was a tumultuous time in women’s history. It’s hard to believe that by World War I women still could not vote and have only been able to do so for just over a century.
In school, most of us probably studied some things about women’s fight for equality but missing from those pages is another story that only began to be uncovered in the final decades of the 20th century and into the next: the queer woman’s place in the early women’s rights movement.
Of course, non-hetero women existed back then, but how did they navigate their worlds? How did they conduct themselves and contribute to their causes? Reno Little Theater’s Bull in a China Shop explores all these themes in an idiosyncratic historical dramedy, bringing a fresh, queer perspective to a critical moment in women’s history.
The play starts at the beginning of the century, when Mary Woolley (Evonne Kezios) has begun her tenure as president of Mount Holyoke Seminary, a girl’s school in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Right off the bat, concerns are raised about Woolley’s character and agenda.
There are the old worries that she’s encouraging the girls to be too independent, too political. But also problematic is her perceived “favoritism” of faculty member Jeannette Marks (Tara Rispin) with whom she is discreetly–and romantically–involved.
Dean Welsh (Terri Gray) acts as a voice of reason, relaying the worries of the board of trustees and the donors who have a tight grip on the future of Mount Holyoke and Woolley’s presidency. Through several decades we see the characters move and change with the times, experiencing victories and defeats, joys and heartaches, in a slightly off-putting anachronistic style.
As actors, Kezios and Rispin hold their own well as the couple in the center of the storm. Everything about them sets the pair up as an odd couple trying to defy the odds before them, from their age difference to their personalities, and even their varying statures.
Indeed, all the roles were performed well, as RLT has a reputation for sniffing out the best of the best. Each actress brought an urgency to her character that illuminated the pervasive struggle the women of the time faced. The funny moments were quite funny and the serious ones just as serious.
The anachronistic style threw things for a loop, however. For example, the dialogue is very noticeably contemporary, with modern lingo and cursing throughout. The music between scenes was of a punk rock vein that didn’t match the mood of the play.
The decades pass from scene to scene with only a few hints dropped here and there to let the audience know where and when they are. A women’s suffrage rally—aha—we must be approaching the ‘20s. Then later Hitler—so we’re approaching World War II.
Per the author’s note these anachronisms are “part of the point” in creating a “startlingly contemporary play” although I can’t say it worked to its fullest advantage. The dialogue was easy enough to get over, but I did find myself feeling lost in time, unsure of where I was until one of those hints dropped, and even then, they usually seemed like side notes.
The characters didn’t age, and there were few cues even in their attire that helped me through the decades. It’s like I knew the story was covering a certain span of time, but I didn’t fully see it on stage which made it feel a little stagnant.
Certainly, though, there is a lot here for many to enjoy. This is a play for all the history buffs out there. Early 20th century American history, women’s history, and queer history are all covered. Even the school setting may appeal to educators who are curious about what it was like running an all-girls’ school back in the day. The historical elements seemed to be authentic and well-researched. I myself may even read a little more about Woolley and Mount Holyoke after seeing this.
If you can overlook the somewhat intentionally disjointed undercurrent, Bull in a China Shop is an interesting exploration of the early 20th century woman, and how she may not be so different from what she is now.
Bull In A China Shop has four remaining performances, March 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and March 27 at 2 p.m. which includes a post-show talk-back session. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and $15 for students. Get details and purchase tickets at https://renolittletheater.org/events/event/bull-in-a-china-shop/.