Caryl Churchill's Innovation Trap

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Kendra Lee Oberhaser as Marlene and Rosie Hallet as Angie

Over a career spanning four decades, Caryl Churchill has become one of the world’s most famous English language playwrights. The socially prescient, experimentally inclined British dramatist’s reputation is somewhat deserved: Her breakout 1979 farce of sexual politics Cloud Nine and her 2000 shocker about love, genocide and hat design, Far Away, are unnerving explorations of the way social conventions can warp and destroy anyone who dares to risk love. You leave these plays with a sense of caution for those who seek happiness and for what they might do to get it.

Yet what passes for vision in Churchill is less about the world we live in and more about the theater. The difference is telling. The dramatist claims that playwrights “don’t give answers; they ask questions.” Fair enough, though the showiness of her plays belies those claims. Critics fall all over themselves praising the innovative nature of Churchill's work, lavishing such panegyrics upon it as, “a bracing kaleidoscopic challenge,” “as inventive as anyone writing for the theater,” and “brilliantly stretching theater’s boundaries.” As if innovation were the equivalent of artistic and moral excellence.

Right now, Bay Area theatergoers have an opportunity to challenge the Churchill orthodoxy. Two of her most significant works -- one old, one new -- are up and running in San Francisco and Berkeley: Love and Information at the American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) new performance space, the Strand, and the Shotgun Players' take on Churchill's 1982 feminist drama, Top Girls. In this pair of imperfect productions, Churchill’s limitations and strengths are on full display.

Love and Information, a play about the corrosive effects of technology, consists of 57 scenes and over a hundred characters, none of them memorable. Some of the vignettes last no more than a few seconds and none stretches for more than five minutes. The effect is deadening. Every moment is enveloped in a cloud of importance, as if to say, "This is the way we live! This is who we are!" When two people gaze at the sky and muse about light, time and death, or in a scene titled “Grief," where the death of a friend is just a set up for a joke, you know that Churchill is taking the easy way out. The overall form might be innovative, but the content is on the level of Hallmark card homilies.

Over and over in ACT’s production we’re asked to grant importance to mere sketches. Casey Stangl’s one-note direction coupled with the visual flatness of Robert Brill’s sets, Lap Chi Chu’s lightning, and the inevitable use of video projections accentuate rather than mute Churchill’s flaws. She hasn’t so much written a play about love and information as she’s written 57 commercials for one.

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Top Girls is a tougher, smarter play, although marred by the very gimmickry that makes it memorable. Marlene, celebrating her promotion to managing director at Top Girls employment agency, throws a dinner party at a swank restaurant. Instead of inviting friends, her guests, which include Pope Joan, Patient Griselda from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a Japanese concubine and the 19th century explorer Isabella Bird among others, are either dead or fictional, and sometimes both.

Right from the start we can sense that these are symbols rather than characters, here to prove a point about the longstanding indignity of women’s lives. We never doubt that point. But we grasp it faster than Churchill expresses it. As she lectures the audience, the only thing we can do is sit there and wait for her to catch up.

Still, scenes as simple as Marlene interviewing a confused client or two teenage girls planning to go to the movies are sharp and surprising. Suddenly, the play gains energy and direction. We see Marlene struggling with her success, the trapped lives of her downtrodden sister and niece, and how alone she is, even when surrounded by colleagues, clients, and family. Churchill poses a horrible possibility: without her job and material success, would Marlene even exist?

There are many problems with the Shotgun Player’s production. First and foremost among them is Erik Flatmo’s visually confusing set. The way the designer mixes and matches elements from one setting to the next robs the production of the social dimensions unique to time and place. There's a reason Churchill moves back and forth from Marelene's office to her sister's rundown flat: the juxtaposition has to be sharp and brutal, not thrown together and messy.

We can thank the lead actresses for overcoming these obstacles and finding the heart of Churchill's play. When confronted with life rather than concepts, the cast digs in and you pay attention. Every scene between Marlene (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) and her niece Angie (Rosie Hallet) is riveting. Watch how Hallet changes her posture when Angie visits her Aunt's office, or how Oberhauser seems larger and a little lumbering when Marlene invades her sister's flat. That's fine acting. The last line of Top Girls is frightening and without much help from the production, these two actresses make it so.

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I wonder what type of play Top Girls would be without the first act? My guess is a better one, but ultimately not as successful. Churchill’s flaws are exactly what make her so appealing to critics and theaters. Things appear to be happening. But all too often this is just the dazzle of empty questions, rather than the necessity of brutal, hard thought answers. We can’t fault ACT and Shotgun for trumpeting Churchill’s reputation as a theatrical iconoclast. But we should be wary of marketing and what it values: you can bet it has nothing to do with human beings.