Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bull Goes All In

Bull – The Bull Fight Play, getting its US premier at 59E59 theaters as part of Brits Off Broadway week, is a viscerally scarring play dealing with the fight for life.  In Bull, that “life” is viable employment, but it is truly a fight to the metaphorical death.
Staged in a high-tech boxing ring - even down to the water cooler in the corner, Bull lays out its sensibilities clearly.  Three gladiators enter, but only two will exit.  In this particular scenario, the three are current sales team employees at an unidentified firm in an unidentified industry.  Neither industry nor firm is identified because these aren’t the critical circumstances of the characters.  Survival is the critical circumstance.

Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton and Adam James in the ring for Bull
The three people up for the job have stereotypical characteristics, but dont' fall into caricature.  Isobel is an icy, calculating woman who stalks the arena in stilettos and steely smile.  Eleanor Matsuura is frightening, funny and oddly erotic in the role.  Her Isobel is a very competent bitch, as she describes herself.  If hers was the only character so shrewish Bull might venture into misogyny, it does not because Tony matches her in ruthlessness, swagger and vanity.

Tony is an upper class toff with charm, wit and an ability to disparage others with rapier precision.  Adam James gives devilish life to this bullying sociopath.  Tony can, in the same moment and even the same sentence, be flirtatious with Isobel and yet painfully cutting to the other member of the team, Thomas.
Thomas is the low man on the totem pole, the man destined to be conquered at the end of the evening.  Sam Troughton gives voice to the frustrated Thomas, a man who knows he can’t win and yet can’t afford to lose.
Eleanor Matsuura & Adam James
Thomas seems at the mercy of Isobel and Tony from the moment they come together. Tony and Isobel feast on Thomas’ insecurities.  They tag team Thomas to reduce his self-esteem by methods both obvious and subtle.  Watching their work is like watching an emotional vivisection, where Thomas is the frog, helpless to stop the action.  When Carter, the manager, comes into to evaluate the results, there is no coherent argument left in Thomas, just the rantings of a punch drunk fighter. Neil Stuke plays Carter with a air of self-importance that is neither overpowering nor too subtle.
Bull is a swift 60 minutes, with much of the audience standing around the boxing ring.  It races by.  For a moment near the end, the Bullfight metaphor was too obvious, but it ends quickly and the hyper-stylistic theatrics returned. 
Beautifully directed by Clare Lizzimore, Bull isn’t realistic in a traditional sense, but it has crystalline clarity when defining the journey of Thomas.  Everyone has had their Thomas moments; being on the outside not understanding why.  Isobel eventually tells Thomas why she acts the way she does.  It is scary, painful and what we all fear in our darkest hour.
Mike Bartlett has written this exceptional piece, and it feels a companion his artful work shown here last year, Cock – the Cockfight play.  Both shows are a three-way tug of war, driving their participants to their most raw emotions.  The most obvious difference is that Bull – The Bull Fight Play has a very limited run here, go see it immediately.
Bull - The Bull Fight Play
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Clare Lizzimore
Cast: Adam James, Eleanor Matsuura, Neil Struke, Sam Troughton

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