Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Bull in a China Shop
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Mother of the Maid

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Jasmine Milan Williams
Photo by David Allen
"If we want to change the world, first we have to question it." These words spoken by Mary Woolley (Stacy Ross), a pioneering educator and feminist who has recently (in 1901, when the play begins) been appointed to the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, firmly place Bull in a China Shop (running through December 8 at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company) as a play of ideas. Written by California playwright Bryna Turner, and based in part on letters between Woolley and her partner Jeanette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), Bull in a China Shop has a bone to pick—one that after more than a century of gnawing still has far too much meat left on it.

Turner's play addresses how the education of women differs from that of men. Or rather, how men have dictated what women ought to learn, and how fearless activists like Woolley worked to help women take control over their education. In Woolley's time, women's education too often centered on social and homemaking skills, often ignoring critical thinking, philosophy, literature, or other elements of a classical education—let alone subjects like medicine, technology, or the law. At Mount Holyoke at the turn of the 20th century, the women were taught to be in service to society, ignoring purely intellectual pursuits—something Woolley felt had prevented women from achieving their full potential.

The play spans nearly 40 years, all of which Woolley spent in the company of Jeanette Marks, a woman who had been a student of hers when Woolley taught at Wellesley College. Since women's sexuality was kept so far on the down low at that time, their affair apparently raised only minor flags among the academic world, even though they lived (for the most part) under the same roof. Thanks to intimacy choreographer Maya Herbsman (and the commitment of the actors), the relationship is presented with tremendous physical honesty and is one of the most accurate representations of intimacy I have ever seen on stage.

In fact, Woolley's lesbian relationship causes her far less hassle from the university trustees than her somewhat radical approach to education. A dean (Mia Tagano) wonders if Woolley isn't trying to "upend the concept of womanhood" entirely, and even her more sympathetic friends speculate that "it sounds like you're advocating for women to tell men to go fuck themselves." Nevertheless, she persisted, transforming Mount Holyoke over the course of a nearly four-decade career as its president.

Stacy Ross is, as ever, a force to be reckoned with. She plays Woolley with an unapologetic swagger that radiates from her like a force field that arrives in a room before she does, delivering the clear message that she is to be messed with at one's own peril. After her performances in Leni, The Year of Magical Thinking, and When We Were Young and Unafraid, I will sign up for anything Ms. Ross appears in.

Her scene partners deserve credit for their ability to portray women who aren't cowed by Woolley's charisma and dedication, yet clearly are minor lights in the constellation she forms. Mbele-Mbong and Tagano (as well as Rebecca Schweitzer and Jasmine Milan Williams, who play Holyoke students) walk that very precarious path with boldness and delicacy.

Fascinating as the story of a revolution can be, Turner's text tends to falter in the second half of this 90-minute intermission-less play, and its energy seems to fizzle. If only those last 45 minutes had the power this cast brings to every moment of Bull in a China Shop.

Bull in a China Shop runs through December 8, 2019, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$70. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.