Youtube videos would like bullied teens to believe “It Gets Better” once high school days are over and done. Not so in the dog-devour-dog business world of Mike Bartlett’s Bull, where it’s one pitiful runt going head to head against a pair of vicious pit bulls. Sorry, make that one pit bull and one pit bitch. Now running in rep with Rogue Machine’s Honky and Smoke, Bull makes for one devastatingly funny, mercilessly soul-shattering fifty-five minute ride.
The runt in question is short, schlumpy Thomas (Joshua Bitton), his bullying coworkers are statuesque, stiletto-heeled Isobel (Lesley Fera) and gladiator-proportioned Tony (Kevin Daniels), and the figurative bull ring in which only two will survive this afternoon’s downsizing is the kind of stark, steel-gray office you’re likely to find anywhere in today’s global corporate world.
Things start out relatively harmlessly as the threesome await the imminent arrival of man-in-charge Carter (Alex Whittington), though it’s obvious from the start that if Darwin’s survival of the fittest proves true, the physically, psychologically unfit Thomas is the one least likely to make the cut.
“Did you wear that deliberately?” queries Isobel with a sadistic gleam in her eye, no matter that Thomas’s gray business suit is identical to Tony’s and the male equivalent of hers. It’s abundantly clear from the get-go that it’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it that will count with Carter.
Thomas’s hair, his stature, indeed even his name (“It’s not a very nice name, is it?”) fall victim to Isobel’s relentless mind games as she plots humiliation after humiliation, studly Tony and his muscular, hairy chest serving as her more-than-willing allies in mortification.
And it’s all quite funny indeed, in an “I can’t believe they just said that!” kind of way until it isn’t, until no doubt remains that Thomas’s adversaries are two of the most vicious, cold-blooded, remorseless bullies you’re likely ever to spend just under an hour with.
Then again, they may simply be a couple of Homo sapiens out to prove Darwin right, that only the most vicious, cold-blooded, and remorseless can remain standing when push comes to shove, as indeed it ultimately does thanks to violence designer Ned Mochel.
Under Jennifer Pollono’s incisive direction, the oh-so versatile Bitton adds eternal underdog Thomas to a long list of terrific stage performances. The physically imposing Daniels proves himself a force to contend with as hunk-from-hell Tony, and Rogue Machine newcomer Whittington makes for a suave, handsome, and equally horrid Carter.
Most memorable of all is Fera’s hard-as-nails, sleek-as-steel, mean-as-a-snake Isobel. (If ever there were an argument for 2nd Amendment rights, it’s Isobel, providing it’s Thomas who gets the gun. Then again, knowing Isobel, she’d likely find a way to disarm him, then pistol-whip him into further submission.)
As originally staged in London and New York, Bull’s production design had it set inside an actual boxing ring (or a close facsimile thereof). Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s near-bare office waiting room may be less metaphorical for the play’s West Coast Premiere, but her more literal scenic design works to perfection as do Marissa Maynes’ meticulously coordinated costumes and Dan Weingarten’s stark, unforgiving lighting.
Charles Platt is assistant director. Amanda Mauer is production manager and David A. Mauer is technical director. Bull is produced by John Perrin Flynn, Justin Okin, and Pollono. Fiona Hardingham and Darius De La Cruz are understudies.
The first word out of my mouth when I see great theater is likely to be “WOW!” When the lights went out on Bull, I found myself repeating something quite different, which is why I give this short-and-savage Rogue Machine gem a “HOLY SHIT!” I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Rogue Machine @ The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. www.roguemachinetheatre.com
July 2, 2106
Photos: John Perrin Flynn