November Theater Roundup

By Jean Schiffman

Sure sign that it’s a good month for local theater: three plays by and about women, all based on history, all written in contemporary vernacular, all witty, all addressing serious topics.

In the world premiere of Kate Atwell’s “Testmatch” at American Conservatory Theater, women’s cricket is the context through which to view the legacy of colonialism and issues of power and gender. Bryna Turner’s “Bull in a China Shop” at Aurora Theatre Company examines the love and friction between two early-20th-century American suffragists. And in its West Coast premiere, Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid” at Marin Theatre Company views Joan of Arc from the perspective of her anguished mother.


In the first, present-day act of “Testmatch,” two opposing teams of cricket players (British and Indian, represented by three players each) at the Women’s World Cup in England restlessly pace the locker room, the game rained out. Personality conflicts and competitive spirit prevail as seen in the rapid-fire volleying (“Bloody bloody hell,” rages one Indian player. “This bloody country,” agrees her teammate. “And its god damn rain!” adds the third.) An unexpected downturn ends the act.

Act II is set in famine-wracked Calcutta in 1800 (“or thereabouts,” according to Atwell’s script, which is not meant to be historically precise), where the women of Act I now play mostly male characters. Two corrupt Brits of the Lords Cricket Club are setting down the rules of the game, as starving masses hover outside the compound (“the smell, the stink, the rot that keeps floating in from outside those gates,” whines one; “Ghastly,” agrees the other). A sickly, hysterical colonial wife wanders about, attended to by an Indian servant; a Messenger—a classical theatrical trope--at last brings news from beyond. It’s a wicked spoof of imperialism in India, points out director (and A.C.T.’s new artistic director) Pam MacKinnon. Of the time-and-place-traveling component, she adds, “We have to go back in time to figure out what is going on here. . . . To move forward from a problematic present you have to understand the origin story.”

Nov. 6-Dec. 8

American Conservatory Theater’s Strand

Bull in a China Shop

Mary Woolley is the self-declared bull in this 2017 drama; the china shop is the “struggling women’s seminary,” which, as president starting in 1901, she remade into the renowned Mt. Holyoke. Turner was inspired by actual letters between Woolley (played by Stacy Ross)and her lover, writer Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong).

But the play concerns more than what would then have been an illicit lesbian liaison. Over time, friction arises between the two feminists. Is Woolley true to her convictions or is she making political compromises? Early on, Marks queries her: “You want a revolution?” Replies Woolley, “I am a revolution!” but later Marks says, “You just want power.”

 “I didn’t know what they’d be fighting about based on their [flowery, Victorian] letters,” Turner commented in a Lincoln Center interview. “So the fights are mine, the politics are mine . . .”

Director Dawn Monique Williams, Aurora Theatre’s new associate artistic director, relishes the play’s contemporary yet poetic language. She adds, “The play is asking big questions that are so much of the moment now: what it means for a woman to step into a leadership position, especially someone who thinks of herself as radical. And it’s a comedy!”

Nov. 14-Dec. 15

Aurora Theatre Company

Mother of the Maid

The 15th-century French peasant Isabelle Arc describes herself, at the beginning of Jane Anderson’s latest Broadway play, in the third-person, as “a god-fearin’ woman. She can neither read nor write and her skirts smell ripe as cheese.” The story is well-known: Isabelle’s daughter, Joan, the so-called maid of Orleans, claims she’s had visions of saints ordering her to lead an army to drive the English out of France. “This is the story,” says Marin Theatre Company artistic director Jasson Minadakis, “of a young girl growing up who doesn’t fit into her parents’ expectations. But it’s also an exploration of how organizations [in this case, the Catholic Church and the French government] can [exploit] an individual’s uniqueness,” can in fact utterly destroy the person. In “Mother of the Maid,” “Mum” and “Da” disagree about whether to allow their very determined teenager to follow her path; Joan’s brother and the local priest are also deeply invested in the situation. Although the outcome is well-known, Minadakis says he was so emotionally involved when he first read the script that when he got to the inevitable end, it was a shock. It’s no spoiler to note that Joan died while still in her teens, a martyr to the cause.

Nov. 19-Dec. 8

Marin Theatre Company