On Lorem Ipsum's Owners and Love and Information

by Megan Grumbling

Women and “success,” sexual colonialism, and nature-versus-nurture among clones are just a few of the subjects treated with the irreverent, disarming vision of British playwright Caryl Churchill. She’s won four Obies and written nearly fifty scripts over the last fifty years, and a fascinating glimpse at the span of her work is on stage now at SPACE Gallery, where the Lorem Ipsum Theater Collective stages two of her full-length plays in repertory – her earliest and her most recent. Anyone who appreciated Dramatic Rep’s fall production of Churchill’s A Number – or who wants to relish some of the stage’s most challenging modern writing – should hasten to attend both Churchill’s 1972 Owners, a black satire about avarice (directed by Deirdre Fulton) and her 2012 Love and Information, a paean to humanity in the age of data (directed by Nick Schroeder).

Owners is a dark-comic exploration of possession as pathology. Real estate mogul Marion (Mariah Bergeron) is magnetic but ruthless, rages her emasculated butcher husband Clegg (Matthew Delamater). Assisted by her fawning, suicidal lackey Worseley (Michael Dix Thomas, in huge Seventies glasses), Marion is hell-bent on removing pregnant hairdresser Lisa (Tess Van Horn) and Lisa’s depressed husband Alec (Ian Carlsen) from a building she wants to buy. But it may not truly be the house, per se, that she wants to possess.

The show is set in a “developing bit” of 1970’s London, a time and flavor that Lorem Ipsum calls up with particular savoir-faire. Stacey Koloski’s sets (on both the main stage and the floor below) are rife with touches of the era – bright late-Mod flowers on an office cushion, a red typewriter and black rotary phone, lots of afghans – while Diane Toepfer gives costumes delicious attention to detail and character: Marion’s sleek black power-pantsuit-pants and taupe knit belt; working-class Lisa’s striped wool skirt and lavender polka-dot blouse. Add to this director Fulton’s knowing sound design – a whole soundtrack of Sixties and early-Seventies tunes very topically placed – and it’s all quite a conjuring of an era.

Churchill riddles the script with that era’s sexual politics, affronts, and contrasts, and Fulton’s cast makes amiably farcical grotesques of those who purvey them. Delamater’s excellent Clegg, puffing up and gesturing with a cleaver, is like a Foghorn Leghorn of disenfranchised, chauvinistic need, while Carlsen, pasty and narcoleptic, barely blinks through Alec’s apathetic disavowal of all desire. Carlsen also draws a striking counterpoint to Van Horn, as his wife, her Lisa’s flashing eyes and shrilly sing-song cockney voice rising in constant protest against his inert, monotone resignation. Why, she demands, can he not be a man?

As Worseley, yet another enfeebled man – this one delivering the running gag of a new suicide-attempt bandage per scene – Thomas is superlative letting a broadly comic character creep quietly into pathos. He lights up when he’s being useful to Marion, and otherwise smiles weakly, neck nudged out as if awaiting an ax. But when he finally stands up to his boss, only after having set a murderous house fire for her, the image he strikes of a sickly, mangled, fully conscious morality is arresting. As his – and in a sense everyone’s – faithless mistress, Bergeron is arch and elegant, but she also does enough flouncing and strutting to show the businesswoman’s underlying insecurities. Marion’s rapacious desire for Alec feels a little under-realized here, but her uber-desire – possession itself – reveals itself in Bergeron like an indelible ghost in a photograph.

In all this wanting, having, and not having, Fulton’s cast sustains Churchill’s brazen funhouse cynicism and her careful tension between farce, horror, and tragedy: An almost-madcap romp in bed between Lisa and Clegg turns queasily chilling by the end of the scene; Bergeron is startlingly affecting in Marion’s disjointed monologue about having seen her own reflection smiling after someone took her money on the train.

Chuchill doesn’t offer much in the way of solution or transformation; the antithesis to Marion’s cancerous ego – the eerily apathetic Alec, who claims “I’d rather not have an idea of myself” and that he can’t say he loves his own children more than a stranger’s – is a wraith of modern man; Carlen’s slack, putty-colored lips seem to constantly taste a mild sourness that you can see sinking more deeply into him each time he swallows. Even the reasonable desires of Lisa take on darkness, as Van Horn slowly turns her need at once harder, number and more hysterical.

Moments of sympathy for any characters are few, so darkly does young Churchill draw her burlesques in Owners, but she makes sure we understand them. “Once you’ve got things, you’ll want to hold on to them,” Marion says, and despite ourselves, we know exactly what she knows.


While Owners recalls the black, fully articulated caricatures of Brecht, the later Churchill is a master of abbreviation, truncation, and the unsaid – a more Pinteresque breed of comic darkness. But there are also surprising moments of light in Love and Information, a fragmented sequence of over fifty very short scenes that form no traditional narrative, but rather riff in prismatic fashion on the meaning of the title words.

It’s not a stretch to say, then, that this is a show about everything. Everything we know, we know by various sorts of sensory information, which our brains process into something to feel or “know.” But information overwhelm being our modern m.o, Love and Information is a wide-reaching and deeply empathetic meditation on our “information” in various relationships to our love. Schroeder directs a deft and protean ensemble (Grace Bauer, Maureen Butler, Ian Carlsen, Kacy Christine Courtney Cook, Caleb Aaron Coulthard, Lisa Boucher Hartman, Christopher Holt, Bridgette Kelly, Mark Rubin, and Marjolaine Whittlesey) in the theatrical equivalent of the hyper-speed procession of images, glimpses, and bits of language by which we know our modern world.

The fragmented and refracted nature of the show is tangible as soon as you walk into the house: the rows of seats face this way and that like a Picasso theater – in some places, we’re nearly knee to knee – and are angled around four stages: the main stage, platforms to both right and left, and a bed right on the floor. We swivel and crane to follow the action, and as we do, we catch glimpses and peripheral vision of each other watching and reacting. Being in this audience is a little like being inside a collective brain, watching synapses fire and travel, and it’s also a microcosm of the world, of being ever-closer proximity to each other. The staging choice is smart, playfully jarring, and superbly intimate.

One of the chief pleasures of this show is to see so masterful a mind and stylist work in so many idioms. Churchill’s characteristically scathing critique is here, in the casual menace of a conversation between two interrogators on break, or the outrageous satire of a scientist interviewed about feeding chickens poisoned beads. And some scenes are pointedly topical, as when a man glibly recites a DNA sequence – a whole scene of G’s, T’s, A’s, and C’s – or when a man defends his new, wholly electronic paramour to his stupefied partner. “She is just information,” the woman protests, and he responds “You are just information.”

But Churchill’s tone is also at times surprisingly whimsical, and her script is especially affecting when that whimsy stretches the terms of what we consider “information”: paint brushed onto a canvas; three men eating oranges in a row; a man imitating birdsong off his iPhone; an older and younger woman wordlessly embracing. The progression of scenes becomes an object lesson in epistemology – the question of how we know what we know – and how we know when different modes are valid or “true.” How do all of these sensations, images, and words add up to, not add up to, and/or become measures of our experience? Of our love? We try to figure it out, sitting in the odd angles of SPACE’s house, just as we are trying to figure it out every day of our lives.

The effect of Love and Information as a whole, in Lorem Ipsum’s fleet and intelligent production, glancing and grazing about the big questions from such myriad angles – and letting us experience it in such disarming view of each other – actually feels like a manifestation of the subconscious: the uncountable glints and glimpses of our lives made visual. “Mosaic” is a word Schroeder uses in the directors’ notes, and it does in some ways feel like a Chuck Close portrait, in which myriad detailed tiles, each a different image up close, transform to a larger portrait at a distance. It also recalls the poetic form of the ghazal, in which each individual couplet might as well be its own two-line poem, but is loosely connected to the others in circling a larger theme. Watching these scenes that circle the titular concepts, I at first felt an involuntary impulse to identify each fragment as positively this or that, a one or a zero – here, information is “good,” there, it’s “bad.” Soon enough, though, the cumulative sketches remind us that in dealing with information and/or love, we’re dealing with nothing so binary, and the brisk clip at which we shift between fragments makes it all the more challenging – bracingly so – to try to grasp the grays of one scene before we’re rushed to the next.

That rush in the pacing – as well as occasional moments to slow, to breathe – is imperative for this show to work, and Schroeder’s direction sustains this rhythm for the vast majority of the show. Only a few scenes drag, notably a comic melodrama about a famous reclusive writer and his wife stalked by the press, and the scene of a woman explaining the significance of red flowers she’s received feels a little slow and over-dramatic. If anything, I would amplify the differences in pacing between scenes – make the slow ones slower, the swift ones swifter. Schroeder’s ensemble, chameleon-like both visually and in tone, successfully navigates the rich range of styles and moods of this very challenging piece – melodrama, slapstick comedy, quiet lyricism, dark comedy –  and they together create the cultivate the internal cohesion necessary to keep its non-traditional narrative feeling whole and vital.

In staging these two shows in rep, Lorem Ipsum offers us the fascinating pleasure of experiencing, in one space, the shifts in Churchill’s vision and tone over her half a century of writing, how her youthful voice, as black-comically terrifying as anything from Pinter or Brecht, has evolved. The mature voice of Love and Information, while losing none of her edge or critique, has gained in range and complexity, opening as it does into unexpected beauty, outright sentiment, and tenderness. This softness in no way simplifies the puzzle of love and information, and in fact only amplifies how they confound.

In one particularly moving scene, two women, rising from bed, compare how each remembers the origins of their love by images that are bright but never held in common –- a field of buttercups, green wallpaper, soup on the stove. Beautifully performed on and around the bed – close to and right in the middle of all of us watching at SPACE – the scene is a simple but visceral reminder of how we love: not despite but because of the tender, tenuous fallibility of how we know it.

Owners and Love and Information, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Deirdre Fulton and Nick Schroeder. Produced by Lorem Ipsum Theater Collective, at SPACE Gallery, through January 25. www.loremipsumtheater.com