Owners: Morality, Misogyny and Possession

Photo Courtesy of Guillaume Doussin
Tuesday Night Café Theatre is excited to present their first production of the year:  Owners, written by Caryl Churchill and directed by Olivier Bishop-Mercier.

Owners is, of course, a play about ownership. People are treated as objects, and discussed in terms of property. The obsession with human possession drives the play from beginning to end. Owners features two unhappy couples: Clegg (Andrew Young) and Marion (Sara Harvey) and Lisa (Emily Sheeran) and Alec (Guillame Doussin). Marion’s suicidal employee Worsely (Sam Miller) plots with Clegg to kill Marion, whom they both resent and love. In the other unhappy marriage, Lisa berates her depressed and apathetic husband Alec for being incapable of emotion and action. The two couples are brought together, fittingly, by a question of ownership.

Real estate manager Marion is the new owner of Lisa and Alec’s home, and wants them out. The relationships between the four become deeply complicated and their plots against each other become increasingly evil. At the centre of this messy web is Marion’s adulterous relationship with Alec, with whom it appears she has a rich history. In the show’s climax, the five main characters are brought together in an intense ensemble scene.

With everyone in the room, the relationships and characters are contrasted plainly and beautifully. There is meek and obedient Lisa next to defiant and spirited Marion. There are Clegg and Worsely, vying for Marion’s attention – willing to kill for it – and Alec, who Marion would kill for, but couldn’t care less. At the heart of this conflict is a child, who too is treated and fought over like property. Comedy, romance, bitterness, and anger all come to a fiery head (you’ll get it after you see it) in the play’s conclusion.

“First and foremost, Owners is an exploration of morality through characters with seemingly no morals. While clearly a black comedy, Churchill’s aim is to demonstrate the extremes people will go to in order to fulfill their desires.”

Owners features a small cast, and each of the actors does their role justice. Miller’s excellent comedic timing and nervy, jumpy performance as Worsely acts to punctuate the dark material as well as provide comedic relief. Young’s performance as Clegg is also a highlight. Young’s lines are casually misogynistic, toeing the line between humour and offence but always coming out on the right side. It’s a difficult task to portray a character like Clegg while making it clear to the audience that the lines are meant to be a critique of traditional gender roles (Churchill was a well-known feminist), but Young manages with ease.

The other key relationship is the one between Marion and Alec. Here, Harvey breaks your heart using little more than her facial expressions. Harvey manages to make the audience sympathetic towards cruel, bitter Marion, and the climax of this couple’s story is a high point in the play.

First and foremost, Owners is an exploration of morality through characters with seemingly no morals. While clearly a black comedy, Churchill’s aim is to demonstrate the extremes people will go to in order to fulfill their desires. And refreshingly, Owners does this without judgement of whether those extremes are right or wrong.

Olivier Bishop-Mercier, the director, says that this is one of the key reasons he chose to direct Owners. “I think this is a play that leaves the social commentary to be answered digested by the audience,” he says. “I think there’s an issue in a lot of plays with shoving morality down your throat… this play raises so many questions and doesn’t hold your hand, it respects the audience’s intelligence enough to have their own opinions on these issues.”

The other central theme is the subversion of gender stereotypes, most clearly seen in Marion and Alec’s characters. Marion seems at first glance like the shrew stock character, but her relationship with Alec explores her vulnerability. Whether intentional or not, Marion is cast in a more stereotypically “feminine” role, as an emotional counterpart to the stoic Alec, who dashes her hopes relentlessly. Caryl Churchill’s works constantly revisit themes of feminism, gender stereotypes and sexual politics.

Marion is the prototypical feminist who smashes patriarchal expectations, but Alec’s role in exploring masculine ideals is also significant. Cool and apathetic Alec, who is open about his mental illness and averse to strong reactions contrasts with hot-headed, toxically masculine Clegg. The irony of “masculine” Marion’s love for Alec, the total opposite of her husband, is subtle but impactful. Clegg’s constant reminders of the gender stereotypes that society imposes on women is also deeply stirring. Harvey and Young are standouts in their roles which call attention to gender dynamics in uniquely different ways.

Finally, the last clear theme of Owners is ownership, and the human obsession with possession. Each character is driven by desire to own something or someone, or to be owned themselves. Even when characters speak of love, they equate it with ownership; “you’re mine” is Owners’ “I love you”. The commodification of human interaction is constant;  sex is traded like it means nothing, and murder for pay is committed without remorse. The baby is used merely as a bartering tool, and its humanity and agency is never brought up  or acknowledged. Even the set design has meaning.

Bishop-Mercier and the set designers put together a set that he describes as “fleshy.” Combined with TNC’s intimate, 50-seat setting, it further emphasizes the human-ness which the characters seem to lack. This is all Churchill’s design; a staunch socialist, Owners was written to criticize the greed of capitalist society, and it certainly gets its point across. Dark comedies always pose the challenge of balancing heavy subject matter with humour.

How did Bishop-Mercier manage this? “It was really a matter of embracing the absurdity of the text,” he says, and “blowing up these real-life figures to their laughable extent.” He assures me that Young, in real life, “is actually a lovely guy.”

Owners certainly succeeds in making you laugh, while never letting you forget the seriousness of what you’re laughing at.

Owners runs from October 18-21 at Morrice Hall (3485 rue McTavish). Tickets are $6 for McGill students and $10 for general admission.

Content Warning: themes of mental illness and suicide. Scenes containing sexual harassment and violence.

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