Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal for The Bull, PW’s newest production. Because the cast is so small (only four characters), it’s hard not to get invested in each character. Thomas is despised and bullied by his colleagues. He is a pathetic victim, played masterfully by Jason Roth ’17. Next is Isobel, played by Marli Scharlin ’16, the “brilliant and lythe” (her own words) executive whose true abilities lie in her ability to tear others down. We loathe Isobel but cannot help but be fascinated by her. There is also Tony, the “team leader” of the sales office. His domineering and sensual presence is indisputable; Keston McMillan ’17 is very well suited for this role. The final character to be introduced is Carter, their boss. Although she is not on stage very long, Jenn Maley ’16 deftly portrays this sneering, cold hearted bureaucrat. I was genuinely afraid.
Here are 10 of my takeaways from The Bull:
1.The intimacy of Upspace
This performance space has redefined my notion of an intimate show setting. The black box theater is tiny, and the seats are set equal to the stage, forcing us to be engaged in the unwinding drama. Let me reiterate, this intimacy is no peck from your grandmother. It is full-frontal, inescapable, in-your-face closeness. This show does not allow for checking of phones or bathroom breaks.
2. Importance of repetition
The Bull loves patterns. The play opens with two characters on stage and ends with the pair in an identical position. In this same thread, certain words and insults are repeated throughout the show. When Isobel tells the audience she revels in “poking and poking and poking and poking and poking” we can’t help but feel revolted.
3. Power dynamics
As mentioned above, the play begins with just two people on stage. Immediately, the blocking of Isobel and Thomas establishes the nature of their relationship. Isobel dominates the stage, exuding sexual prowess and leering at her weak counterpart. Throughout the show, these power dynamics never completely shift, but they do evolve. With the introduction of new characters, the hatred escalates. The cruelty is barely established as 1 vs. 1, before it becomes 2 vs. 1, until finally the score is settled at 3 vs. 1.
4. The importance of costumes
After talking to the director Emily Garrison ’16, I learned that the costumes, like the set pieces, came entirely from the students. Because the cast was so small, I noticed the details of their dress even more. On stage, Tony and Isobel looked like corporate royalty. Hearing these executive foul words spew from the lips of these executives was jarring and very effective.
5. Different types of insecurities
As you can probably gather, these characters are bloodthirsty. Their insults stray from the typical; every remark is pointed and intended to evoke an emotional response. Tony and Isobel are master manipulators. They attack Thomas on a host of levels: insulting his clothes, his short physique, his flabby waistline, his stupidity, even his integrity. Nothing in The Bull is sugarcoated. Characters delight in going for the jugular, preying upon old insecurities and ripping them to shreds.
In my opinion, the final scene is the most impactful. Although both Thomas and Isobel are on stage, we recognize that this is Isobel’s moment, her last chance to fully dig her claws into Thomas. Enthralled by her vicious attack, I had to wonder, “How could anyone be so mean?” As if in response, Isobel screams justifications. She announces that “you bring this upon yourself” and that there is an instinctive “need to bring you down.” Following this twisted logic, her argument almost makes sense.
The Bull is only an hour (perfect for those of us, myself included, spending too much time on the Main Green and not enough time studying for midterms). The director cranks the tempo up all the way, and the speed of the show is jolting and without respite.
The characters’ timing should not be overlooked. The lines are quick and biting, more like snippets of conversation than complete thoughts. In regard to individual voices, Carter’s delivery is spot on. She exudes condescension at all the right times, and her corrosive words ultimately shatter Thomas.
9. Symbolism of the last scene
The final scene is rife with symbolism. That’s all I’ll tell you for now; when you witness this last moment for yourself, you’ll get where I’m coming from. When the light is extinguished, we collectively release a sigh of relief we hadn’t realized was stifled the whole time. Again, The Bull is not for the weak of heart. The direction forces us to feel, get close to the fire, and try our best to avoid the flames.
10. This show rocks.
As a first time visitor to the Upspace, I was spellbound by this student-run performance. Garrison’s direction was mature and thought-provoking. The Bull will be performed on October 8th at 9 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. and on October 9th at 8 p.m.
Images via Emma Dickson ’16.