There are a couple of things about Hypnic Jerk’s production of Bull that an audience might take as red flags. For starters, it’s the company’s first production, outside of a 2014 Fringe Festival show. For another, it’s staged in a couple of decidedly non-traditional spaces. This weekend’s shows are being performed in a Southeast Minneapolis artists’ loft, and the production I caught on Saturday took place at my neighborhood boxing gym. Personally, I’m a great fan of fresh faces and unexpected places, so I went into Bull with my hopes high.
Of course, there’s also one big reason an audience might come into this production of Bull with high enthusiasm, that being a script by acclaimed British playwright Mike Bartlett that garnered strong reviews in its New York and London runs. This puts me in a bit of predicament as a critic, because I’m also a great fan of inverted expectations. While it disappoints me that I can’t give this show my full endorsement, it pleases me that it’s because its perceived strength is actually its greatest weakness.
Bull is a three-hander for most of its brief (just over an hour) run time, tracking the toxic interactions of a trio of up-and-comers at some unnamed corporate office. While waiting for a big meeting with their superior, vicious alphas Lauren Diesch and Ben Shaw pass the time by verbally tormenting and physically humiliating neurotic beta David Wasserman. That’s about it as far as the plot goes, although the nastiness takes some new turns once pompous executive Rod Kleiss shows up in the play’s final third.
You take the good, you take the bad
What we have here is an interesting quandary: a very good production of a not very good play. With minimal props and a tight performance space, this show demands some uniformly strong acting if it’s to work at all. This cast proves itself up to the challenge, with Diesch and Shaw creating two truly detestable but also strangely charismatic characters almost in spite of the verbal atrocities Bartlett puts in their mouths. Kleiss cuts a strong figure in his limited stage time, capturing the casual callousness of a man rich and powerful enough that he no longer has to pretend to give a damn. The real highlight, though, is Wasserman’s performance in the keystone role. He invests his harried, flop-sweaty perennial loser with a blustery sadness that comes off as pitiful but not quite pitiable, a distinction that’s at the heart of Bull’s modus operandi.
The only major fault I can find in Hypnic Jerk’s approach to this material is that staging the show in an actual boxing ring is perhaps laying the metaphor on a little thick. But even that is an admirable attempt at doing things differently, and I can’t deny that it lends the production a jagged energy that likely wouldn’t have come through in a more standard black box theater. I also happened to see the show on an unseasonably sweltering night when the building’s cooling system couldn’t quite keep up, and the physical discomfort of the sweaty room actually complemented the emotional discomfort of the material rather nicely.
Nasty is as nasty does
As for that uncomfortable material, I can’t deny that Bartlett’s script has its merits. It’s angry, intense stuff that, at its best moments, taps into some startling pockets of naked emotion. On the whole, though, it comes across as ugliness for the sake of ugliness, the product of a talented writer who’s taken all the worst lessons from David Mamet and Armando Iannucci and all the LaBute-iest lessons from Neil LaBute.
Bartlett’s nastiness raises hackles and hits nerves, but the script never pushes for much beyond a nihilistic portrayal of bad people doing bad things. Sure, the modern workplace can be a cutthroat arena not unlike a bullfighting ring. Yes, it can be taken as a grim microcosm of man’s inhumanity toward man. And yeah, bullying is just as awful to witness in the adult world as it is on the playground. This is all well-traveled territory, and Bull doesn’t have much to say about it that hasn’t been said countless times before. I was actually surprised to find that the show debuted in 2013, as it often feels like a relic of an era when this specific strain of cynicism would have felt considerably more shocking, or at least more novel.
So as you might surmise, Mike Bartlett’s Bull didn’t really do it for me as a play. On the other hand, Hypnic Jerk’s Bull impressed me quite a bit as a production. I can’t say for sure whether that adds up to recommended viewing, but it’s something of a testament to the complex wonder of theater. There’s a particular thrill in watching a script that simply doesn’t connect with me at all brought to life by a cast and director capable of goading it toward something more identifiable. From that angle, at least, I can count this Bull as an experience I’m glad I had.