Street Corner Arts has become a company to watch, producing many of the most important plays each year, and with Mike Bartlett’s “Bull”, they continue this in a very impactful way. This dark comedy of workplace politics is one of the most topical, relevant pieces on stages right now, and it’s given a tight, humorous, but heartbreaking production under the firm hand of Benjamin Summers.
“Bull” begins as a dark comedy about three co-workers under pressure, learning that one of them is going to be fired, and all of the zany, awkward situations they find themselves in in the process. How Mike Bartlett is able to slowly parse out information about the characters through these scenes is clever, as with a few small details, we learn some important elements about our three characters. We’re also never sure whether what these characters are saying is true, as there’s a level of distrust among all of them, sowing seeds to a few elements that will become wildly important later.
As the play reaches the end, the play transform into something much darker, and much more important. We’re always so used to stories where the hardworking underdog saves the day and gets one over on his bullies and tormentors, but “Bull” pulls an absolutely devastating, and ingenious move, of subverting that. The good guy loses. The bullies win. As we look back on this, of course, it was a foregone conclusion. Every word, every action, every scene in the play has been showing us, of course, that our romantic notions of underdog glories are just childhood daydreams in the end, and that it’s those unafraid to step on others, to use their looks to get ahead, to utilize every loophole and advantage they have to quash others’ ambitions, are the ones that will get ahead in the world. It’s a sobering theme, and one that hit this critic in a palpable way.
It’s to Suzanne Balling’s and Devin Finn’s credit that they make their characters so amiable, even as they’re doing the most despicable things. During the first part the play, they keep find new ways to humiliate their schlubby coworker, but thanks to a remarkable amount of charisma, it never feels intrinsically cruel, but instead feels like playful ribbing. In the later stages of the play, when the fired co-worker is literally being kicked while he’s down (you were warned, the play gets dark), you still feel a sense of true sympathy coming from Suzanne Balling as Isobel, even though there is obviously a sense of disgust there. The true horror can only come through if we can relate to it, if these people feel real, and thanks to some fine tuning by the actors, many of us will find these people all too recognizable.
Thomas, the sympathetic character at the heart of the play, is the kind hardworking try-hard that keeps getting one-upped by those who are more attractive or more outgoing, and Anders Nerheim has taken this burden on to his shoulders with gusto. Though many of his actions are played for humor, as the play goes on, Nerheim begins to show a sensitive sorrow beneath a hard outer shell, particularly when he begins getting beaten down near the piece’s end. Through his pathos-laden portrayal, we are able to take a deeper look at what seems to be the message that Bartlett is going for in the play: no matter how hard we work, how long we’ve stayed around, how much we care, those that are more attractive, more outgoing, more willing to step on others to get on top are more likely to get ahead.
The best pieces of theatre are tools for beginning a conversation, and “Bull” creates an amazing one. The author shows us several sides of the argument: Thomas is a pushover: badly dressed, high strung, and it’s implied he makes his clients uncomfortable. It’s understandable where he would be the odd man out in a client-facing job; however, his two co-workers are obviously bullies, torturing him to no end, making his life a living Hell. Mike Bartlett doesn’t provide easy answers, and that’s what makes “Bull” such an amazing work, and with the finely tuned performances from the actors, and an obviously firm guiding hand from director Benjamin Summer, this piece blitzes from comedy to tragedy with remarkable accuracy.
Street Corner Arts’ “Bull” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through April 23rd. For more information, and to purcahse tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org