The British playwright Caryl Churchill is beloved by student theaters, and for good reason. She writes uncompromising, foulmouthed, politicized, taboo-bending dramas about adults who've sold out their values and let society get the better of them. Her characters' attempts to justify these changes of heart leads to virulent arguments and often horrifying circumstances. No wonder young collegiate idealists find her plays so appealing.
Churchill's had plenty of mainstream success — Cloud Nine, which dealt with British social archetypes at opposite ends of the 20th century, ran for two years Off Broadway in the early 1980s. It was followed in 1982 by the feminist debate Top Girls, which has had a number of all-star revivals in recent years. In her native England, Churchill continues to be a vital theater voice, dealing with hot topical issues and continuing to provoke and agitate.
It's rare these days, however to see Churchill's work done by American regional theaters. College theaters? No problem. At Yale alone, the School of Drama did a student thesis production of Cloud Nine last year, the student-run Yale Summer Cabaret did two Churchill one-acts this past August, and the regular school-year Yale Cabaret has done numerous Churchill works over the years. Yale's professional regional theater, Yale Rep, however, hasn't done a Churchill since the social-climbing capitalist clash Serious Money in 2002 — and even then, it was a show reserved as a showcase for students in the YSD graduating class.
Such Rep showcases don't happen anymore, but the desire to cast Caryl Churchill shows with students persists. Three of the six cast members of the Rep's big, bracing, boisterous yet carefully paced production of Churchill's Owners are recent School of Drama grads. Most of the design team is made up of current students at the school. Director Evan Yionoulis, who attended both Yale College and the School of Drama in her youth, has taught at the graduate school for 15 years, so she knows these students well.
Yionoulis has a genuine talent for dark, violent comedy, as demonstrated by her mesmerizing production of George F. Walker's difficult and defiant Heaven (staged in 2000), not to mention Henry Adam's The People Next Door and Keith Reddin's adaptation of Bulgakov's Black Snow (both in 2006). For Owners she maintains an arch, dehumanizing style which perfectly suits Caryl Churchill's theme — that in our modern quest to amass property and other stuff, we start to see each other as possessions as well. The production takes this attitude to its logical extreme by having two minor characters, called "Customers" in Churchill's script, played by mannequins.
Owners is infused with the same youthful verve, attitude and creativity that Yale student productions generally are, but it is also afforded the considerable resources of Yale Rep. Carmen Martinez's dazzling set design unfurls as a complex interlocking puzzle needing two onstage turntables. The sound and lighting are exquisite, with bursts of scene-setting '60s instruments and flashes of light unlocking each new scene. The hip, full design underscores the main character Marion's obsession with ownership — of buildings, businesses and particularly people. She seeks to win back an ex-lover who — and this is Churchill's masterstroke — is utterly laid-back and implacable and has none of Marion's killer instincts. This unflappable guy, Alec, is played by Tommy Schrider, who served as a similar stud/enigma at Yale Rep in Battle of Black and Dogs and the adultery drama Bossa Nova.
Marion is played by Brenda Meaney, who tended to be cast in chirpy, vulnerable, goofy roles when she was at the School of Drama (from which she graduated just this past spring), and is a revelation with her more reserved, ice-queen stance here. Joby Earle (class of 2010) provides comic relief as a suicidal employee of Marion's, while Alex Trow (2012) shines in two vastly different supporting roles, Alec's mom and a nattering neighbor.
The other members of the cast — Anthony Cochrane as Marion's spiteful and selfish, yet clueless and cuckolded spouse, and Sarah Manton as the key victim of Marion's illogical ire — are old hands at this sort of material, and come by their British accents honestly. They power their stand-alone monologues, breakdowns and sex scenes with the awareness that they are pawns in a battle that's far greater than they are. Similarly, Owners has grand themes of anti-capitalism and self-control to proclaim. These wild and reckless and endlessly intriguing characters serve those aims while providing constant laughs and chills. Owners, which dates from (and is set in) 1972, but doesn't seem at all dated, is a worthy sociopolitical statement about power. It's also a frenzied and fascinating set of performances by a powerful, diverse group of well-schooled, soul-searching, fired-up actors. They make Owners their own.
By Caryl Churchill. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Through Nov. 16 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, corner of Chapel and York streets, New Haven. (203) 432-1234, http://www.yalerep.org.