Election Section

Arts: ‘Owners’ presents Soap Opera of Gentrification By KEN BULLOCKSpecial to the Planet

Tuesday September 27, 2005

A casual chat between a customer and the proprietor of a butcher shop about spousal murder ... an aggressive real estate investor torn between evicting a pregnant woman and her passive husband, (former neighbors), or reinstituting her old affair with the husband instead ... a suicide-prone go-fercum-hit-man in an amorous clinch with the monstrous realty lady while her butcher husband watches a strip-show in a seamy club. 

These predicaments could only be from a hallucinated, over-the-top soap opera, or C aryl Churchill’s “first-mounted” full-length play, Owners, now at the Ashby Stage, produced by Shotgun Players and directed by Patrick Dooley, their founder and artistic director. 

First produced in the United Kingdom in ‘72, following hard on abysmal tim es economically and a rough winter of eviction wars, Owners forecasts, in a way, the beginning of gentrification: buying-up and conversion of tenements, with high profits for fly-by-night absentee owners and nowhere to go for tenants during a period of fo undering industry and high unemployment. 

The monstrous realty woman in question (Marion, played with piss and vinegar by Shotgun stalwart Trish Mullholland) seems like an intern Margaret Thatcher. The web this cast of human arachnids weaves is less intri cate than tangled, each pulling insistently at her or his own particular thread, often wrapped round another who will serve as prey. 

The laughs are just as outrageous as the situations, though they may not always please the fans of the vaguer, Pythonesqu e brands of Brit comedy. The sense of agit-prop political theater is never that much further from the text of this very early work of Churchill’s than it is from, say, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s outdoor shows. 

“Most plays can be looked at from a pol itical perspective and have said something, even if it isn’t what you set out to say ... Sometimes it’s going to be about images, more like a dream to people, and sometimes it’s going to be more like reading an article. And there’s room for all that,” acc ording to the playwright. 

And her technique seems to consist of bombarding the articles read with the images dreamt, and—as in a reactor—seeing what comes loose. There is a relation to the pre-Python kind of gonzo humor of The Goons (Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe), whose cockeyed radio brouhahas set the tone for post-war Brit comedy. But Churchill, with eyes on whatever political or social prize, is tamer. 

Maybe the best slightly askew original elements in Churchill’s script date back to “that savage old English humour” T. S. Eliot saw in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays like Marlowe’s Jew of Malta or Tourneur’s Revenger’s Tragedy, having its final echo in the grotesques of the socially conscious Dickens. Owners seems at times like an up side-down White Devil or Duchess of Malfi, with an eccentric and overly self-conscious (not to say sensitive) cast of prima donnas meting out a form of unintended justice on each other as they mutually betray their allies or lovers of a scene ago and broo d on it in image-laden soliloquies. 

The Shotgun production doesn’t much get to that stratum of theatricality, but does catch these unlikely soap opera divas caroming off each other like bumper cars. It’s a little rough at first keeping up, but the cast—e specially Zehra Berkman, Howard Dillon, John Mercer and Mulholland as the two crossed couples—warm to their mad roles and proceed to tear up the stage. They appear ready to chew the tacky wallpaper on the tenement set Jean-Francois Revon puts on a lazy su san turntable with the realty office and the strip club, all coordinated with Christine Crook’s costumes. 

There are theatrical moments under the laughs: “I feel so funny; I think I must be guilty,” muses venomous Marion. Or Alec, asked by Worsley the mur derous suicide-manqu’s, (Ryan O’Donnell) if he’s attempted it: “No; I don’t need to.”  

And it all ends very quickly, not only because of the snowballing catastrophes climaxing or the soap opera tempo of production. It’s just that “one thing led to so many others. It wasn’t what was on my mind.” 


Shotgun Players present Owners at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, through Oct. 9. Performances are Thurs.-Sun. 8 p.m. For more information call 841-6500 or see www.shotgunplayers.org.