Owners, Strawdog Theatre Company. Though easily the least complex of her plays, Caryl Churchill's first full-length work nonetheless merits some interest as a harbinger of things to come. Like many of her early works, Owners is set in working-class London in the 1970s, and the character of Marion--an ambitious, self-involved executive--sets the stage for Churchill's later disorienting gender play. But the similarities pretty much end there. Owners has none of the subtlety or soft-spoken grace of Cloud 9 and Top Girls--it's blunt, exacting, and transparent. Though Churchill's characters lack definition and their motives are obscure, her unmistakable social agenda looms oppressively over every scene.
Given a modest black-box staging, Owners might still be relevant as a simple document of 70s mores and of Churchill's distinctive brand of feminism. Unfortunately, Strawdog's production gets bogged down in director Nic Dimond's excessively artsy interpretation. Complicated, unnecessary scene changes disrupt the flow of an already choppy play, and the simplistic costume and lighting designs--which attempt to assign color schemes to the characters--only underscore the idea that they're two-dimensional travesties. Too bad Strawdog makes the mistake of trying to improve on its source; in the rare instances when Dimond and his actors settle down and concentrate on building tension through the characters' relationships, the results are breathtaking.