Review: BULL

by Lynn on March 18, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Coal Mine, 798 Danforth Ave, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by David Ferry
Sets and Lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Erika Connor
Sound by Christopher Stanton
Starring: Diana Bentley
Mark Craven
Ryan Rogerson
Damon Runyan

A play about bullying in the workplace that is brutish, subtle, squirm-making and compelling as gripping theatre should be.

The Story. Three people work in sales for the same company. The company is downsizing and one of the three jobs will be cut. Who will keep his/her job? Will it be Isobel; cool, sophisticated and calculating? Will it be Tony; buff, supremely confident, and ambitious? Or will it be Thomas, insecure, easily manipulated and no where near as crafty and confident as his two colleagues?

The three are waiting for their boss, Carter, to arrive and make his decision. While they are waiting both Isobel and Tony chip away at Thomas’s shaky confidence. They make almost off-handed remarks on how cheap his suit looks for such an important meeting; that he has something inappropriate on the right side of his head. It’s like a taunting game for Isobel and Tony, and very serious for Thomas.

The Production. Playwright Mike Bartlett has not indicated one stage direction with regards to the set, costumes or props except that there should be a minimal so that the focus is on the play.

Everything about director David Ferry’s production is exquisite, in that every detail has been carefully thought-out and totally serves the play. Set designer Steve Lucas has envisioned a sparse office with two chairs, a box of files, a water cooler at the wall at the back and a box for garbage. There is a door up stage leading out. The whole playing space is encased on three sides by what looks like a ceiling high black chain-link fence. The ‘fence’ is actually made of sturdy, think black cord but it looks like metal. The audience sits on three sides of the space. What goes on inside that enclosed space can be likened to a bull-ring and Thomas is the hapless animal in the sights of the ruthless bull-fighters; or a fenced in schoolyard for adults. In any case it works a treat.

Erika Connor’s costumes are also masterful. Thomas’s suit is baggy and unflattering. His shoes are scuffed. Isobel wears a fitted red jacket over a sleek, black top with a revealing back. Her stylish straight legged black pants are the perfect length with black heels. This is a picture of a confident, intimidating woman. Tony wears a beautifully fitted dark suit and a blue shirt that stretches over his flexing pecs. His shoes are shined and pointed. The shoes don’t just look like footwear; they look like weapons. Tony defines ambition at all cost. Finally Carter is well dressed as well but it’s his impatient, direct attitude that is everything.

David Ferry manoeuvres and directs his actors in such a way as to illuminate the shifting adversarial focus. Thomas first deals with Isobel. She knows how to move in close to a person to unnerve him, as she does Thomas. When Tony arrives, Thomas moves away from Isobel and aligns himself with Tony, thinking he might be an ally. It’s interesting to see how both Isobel and Tony work in tandem to unsettle Thomas and how Thomas skitters away from them for protection.

Thomas is no fool. As played by Ryan Rogerson, Thomas is articulate, quick thinking in defending himself and not afraid to try and stand up to his tormentors. But Thomas is out played by Isobel and Tony who know how to hone in to Thomas’s weaknesses and they get the upper hand. As Isobel, Diana Bentley exudes confidence and edge. She knows how to appear concerned for Thomas but just as quickly she can turn and sling a barb that pins him. In the end, Isobel is the most ruthless and dangerous of the three. Tony as played by Damon Runyan is obvious in his intentions. He has that obvious confidence of a man who is the master of his own domain. He’s fit; good looking; lives a life of entitlement; has slicked back ‘power hair’ and gets what he wants by any means possible. It’s entertaining to see how he operates, as long as he doesn’t zero in on us. Carter is the impatient boss who has no time for insecure people like Thomas. As played by Mark Caven, Carter he’s a guy who worked his way up being a scrapper. He has no qualms about firing anyone with unsentimental quickness. He doesn’t care about the consequences to the person let go. In his world it’s the survival of the fittest. Someone has to go. We know who that is.

Comment. We have heard with chant-like regularity that bullying in the school yard will not be tolerated. Bullying in the workplace seems to be another matter entirely. We’ve all experienced bullying in the workplace. We’ve read about how CBC management mishandled what happened at the CBC radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi and his alleged bullying of his staff. We’ve heard about bullying in the military between officers and lesser ranked personnel. There doesn’t seem to be any job in which bullying is not prevalent. And it continues. Are we culpable in letting it happen? David Ferry’s production of Bull illuminates these problems in fine, spare detail and leaves us plenty to think about.

The Coal Mine Presents:

Opened: March 17, 2015
Closes: April 5, 2015
Cast: 4, 3 men, 1 woman
Running Time: 1 hour approximate.


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