Friday, May 3, 2013

Bull: Odd Man Out

A picador and a matador walk into an office, each pokes, prods, excites, incites, and stabs the bull but who will prevail.  Is there any nobility in that fight?

L-R: Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton, and Adam James in BULL, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
British playwright Mike Bartlett has created another arena style play, as a companion piece to his play from last season Cock, where the characters come out charging in Bull.

Rather than exploring the world of sexuality and relationships as he did in Cock, in Bull, Bartlett is delving into the cutthroat corporate world where survival of the fittest is a daily battle.  Thomas (Sam Troughton), Tony (Adam James), and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) are scheduled to meet with their boss (Neil Stuke). The company is downsizing and one of them will be let go today.  Every one is on pins and needles about who will survive the layoffs but Isobel and Tony turn their pins and needles on Thomas. Is this harmless banter?  Teasing, taunting, or bullying?  Is this about their jobs or something deeper.

"He's always playing with you and you never stand up to him.  Be a man, have some fucking balls, then someone might find you attractive. At last. Thomas. You might suddenly become a bit just even a bit, impressive.  They might keep you on."--Isobel

L-R: Eleanor Matsuura and Sam Troughton in BULL, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
Set in a glass and metal enclosure with the whir of fluorescent lights above and a water cooler in the corner, this is a generic office.  But there is nothing generic in the probing questions Isobel and Tony ask Thomas.  "Where were you born?" "What did your father do?" "Do you have a girlfriend?" "Do you have a history of mental illness in your family?" In between these personal inquiries, Isobel and Tony needle Thomas about his physical stature, his suit, his attitude, and his lack of camaraderie with the team.

"Stop staring at the floor, stop shuffling around like an autistic penguin. Don't pick your teeth. Don't hunch."--Isobel

Thomas had a short fuse. He cannot disengage. He tries every possible defense.  He ignores them, argues with them, insults them, and plays along.  With each tactic, he seems to fail.  He never has the answer they are looking for.  Like children who keep changing the rules as they play, Thomas has neither the aptitude nor the stomach for this game. 

They keep poking him deeper and deeper.  There are no minor flesh wounds, but dolorous blows after dolorous blows.  Are they gaslighting him or is he paranoid and overreacting?  Troughton is fantastic as the put upon Thomas. As Isabelle and Tony, push him and retract, tease him then apologize, lie and then reveal truths, Troughton expresses moments of genuine trust and then flare-ups of angry doubt. He tries to be cagey but they are relentless.  He lets his guard down and they seize the opportunity to pounce.  Much of this is through Troughton's performance.

Matsuura was not as ferocious as I was expecting, especially as the story progresses.  Her performance seemed at times too reserved.  James was delightful as the ridiculous Tony.  Conciliatory at times and aggressive at others.  Demented and balanced all at the same time.  

Directed by Clare Lizzimore, the actors move around the stage often cornering Thomas.  He must squeeze away from them and find refuge in the open space.  A more elaborate staged fight scene did not work as well as say the sexless sex scene in Cock (after thinking about it I wished it was more stylized and less literal--something about it was clumsy.  But the haunting finale was unexpected and serves well the underlying premise of the piece.  

The design elements work to support the play (Soutra Gilmour, designer, Peter Mumford, lighting designer).  The audience sits on raised platforms on either side of the theater with many in the audience standing around the edge of the enclosure.  This emphasizes the boxing ring/bull ring nature of the play and you cannot escape the feeling that you are party to this vicious game by being "patrons" in attendance at the sporting arena.

If you are looking for a work as funny, rich, and complex as Cock, you will be disappointed.  But this is a sharp, fast one act that offers very good performances, a smart production, and something to ruminate on. 

I received a complimentary ticket to the production.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this play when it was first performed in Sheffield (UK) and went to see it because I think Sam Troughton is a brilliant actor. The play still lingers in my mind, nearly three months later, and I was bowled over by the acting at the end.