Second Thought Theatre’s BULL – Review


Second Thought Theatre continues it's sexy, if not brief, affair with talented British playwright Mike Bartlett.  Click through for my review of STT's take on BULL by Mike Bartlett.

STT Bull Stage

STT ventured out of their normal Bryant Hall home for the 6th floor of the Wyly.  The transformative nature of Bryant Hall is completely realized in all of the Wyly's many stages and areas.  The Wyly holds a truly magical sense of transformation for each and every production.  BULL though isn't flashy, it's rather raw and set in it's way.  Three stone-like blocks act as our only furniture pieces.  Not seen in the above picture is a drink tray set on another white tall block.  The emotion of the play comes from it's music and it's biting performances. 

"Bull is a study of Darwinian cruelty and the perfect example of how high school never ends.  It's very matter of fact about how the world works – without explanation, without apology – and that means it's not an easy play to experience – neither as a spectator nor as an actor."

From STT's play bill.

BULL by Mike Bartlett: 

Directed by Christie Vela.  Lighting Designer – Aaron Johansen.  Producer/Tech Director – Drew Wall.  Stage Manager – Jeremy Escobar.  Artistic Director – Alex Organ.

As you take your seat the production begins with the loud brazen soundtrack filled with punk music.  The angry nature of the music sets you on edge and starts your heart pumping hard as you anticipate the assault that is coming.  You're not supposed to enjoy sitting through this tough production.  This is a play that hopes to educate by only showing you the cold-blooded nature of our world. 

In an unknown, but modern, office we witness Thomas (Ian Ferguson) be verbally and physically abused by his co-workers.  This happens on the day that the three co-workers will find out which one of them is to be fired by their boss Carter (Jeremy Schwartz).  Ian Ferguson, who STT fans will remember from the big cast of BOOTH, is utterly taken apart in this production.  His slow heartbreaking fall is filled with shame and humiliation.  A riveting performance that never has a chance to stop it's own destruction.  You feel so horrible for witnessing his failure.  But the production hinges on it's abusive duo and the careless overload of a boss. 

That overload of a boss, Carter, is played by Jeremy Schwartz.  His smaller role is a breath of fresh air as his nonchalant nature harps to the lack of etiquette seen in his employees'' demeanors.  He runs a mean cut-throat office that needs sharks to feed.  Either you kill for him or you're axed.  And that is why he is here, to let one of these folks go the fuck home.  Ironically the real pleasure in Jeremy's performance is his ability to go with what his workers advise.  He openly listens to Alex and Isobel (Natalie Young) rationalize the firing of Thomas.  Schwartz has a wonderfully chilling retort to Thomas' defense of keeping him employed.   Carter lays the hammer down by alluding to Thomas not standing up to Isobel and Tony as evidence that he needs to be fired.  It's a haunting reality of the business but also fully shows how Thomas has allowed the dastardly duo to win the war.

Alex Ross plays Tony as a brazen ego-filled tyrant who is immediately dislikable but his consistent flare and physicality really amps up the  atmosphere.  At one point Alex rips his shirt open and forces his co-workers to put their faces on his six pack abs.  The whole notion breaks any hope of staying out of someone's "bubble" and adds a unique overpowering sexual element to the character.  The climax of Tony's attack on Thomas involves him hugging Thomas from behind while caressing his chest.  Highly uncomfortable because of it's adolescent tone while still being a full frontal attack on Thomas masculinity.  With all this the character of Tony doesn't hold the horror unleashed by the lone female of the production.

STT Bull Cast Photo by Karen Almond

Jeremy Ferguson (Carter), Natalie Young (Isobel), Ian Ferguson – standing – (Thomas), Alex Ross – sitting – (Tony). 

Photo by Karen Almond

The lone woman in the production is the real star of the play.  Natalie Young is an extremely alluring presence that relishes slowly tearing apart her co-worker.  She is the first and last person to see Thomas.  As she sexily shuffles into the play with her vibrant red heels she captivates every moment.  The rest of the cast is adorn in gray and black, but that beacon like drop of red from Isobel's lipstick, purse and heels illuminates the entire play.  She's basically the image of the bleeding heart that is torn to shreds.  Her attacks are not as physical and in-the-face of Thomas as Tony's.  She in fact garners the most sympathy when we're told of her own possible background.  But the real beauty of the production lies in it's final sequence between Isobel and Thomas.

After 45 minutes of brunt attacks we are left with a broken down fired Thomas and a victorious she-wolf Isobel.  Instead of mocking his work related failures she goads Thomas with a very real final assault.  She asks Thomas if he has a son.  She in fact has met his ex wife/girlfriend and his son, Harry.  Isobel closes the final few minutes of the production by attacking the one good element in Thomas' life, his son.  She gets him to the maddening state of actually trying to hit Isobel.  It's a violent response that the audience would have loved to witness against Tony or even Carter, but against the vile Isobel comes across as creepy.  I won't spoil what actually goes down but the moment the play ends the audience is frozen.  At least the audience I was in all seemed to take a breath before realizing ok it's ended…time to clap.  I might have preferred seeing one more scene but the abrupt ending really completes this vibrant play.  BULL is not a production for the feint of heart.  It's a play that showcases the harsh realities of certain people and does it in a brisk and entertaining way.  Natalie Young's performance is worth the time and money.  She's mesmerizing as she uses Mike Bartlett's salty words like small knives upon the crumpled body of Thomas.  

The production runs through March 14th.  It's both fitting that this play goes up to the March of Ides (15th) where another group of "co-workers" decided to fire someone.  Granted that someone was their Caesar.  It's also Woman's history month.  This play certainly doesn't bridge any gap of in-equality or even speak to the realities of being a woman in the workplace.  But instead it gives us one bad ass lady that doesn't mind completely owning and destroying another person to move on up the ladder. 

For more information or tickets go to Second Thought Theatre.

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