It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and you really don’t want to be the runt. “Everybody loves a winner,” goes a lyric from Cabaret (which is currently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse), but the flipside of that is that “Nobody loves a loser.” That’s pretty much the story of Mike Bartlett’s Bull, currently onstage at Know Theatre, a portrait of bullying in the context of office politics.
Your memory doesn’t have to be too long to recall another play by Bartlett, Cock, staged by Know last March. Know is the first theater company in the U.S. to present both of these works, a kind of theatrical exploration of “cock-and-bull” themes, you might observe. Cock was the story of a man caught between two lovers, his onetime gay partner and his unexpected infatuation with a woman. It was a piece of cynical storytelling with two strong characters battling for the affections of another.
Bull also offers two strong characters, but in this case they join forces to destroy a weaker party, not to win him over. Thomas, Isobel and Tony work in a corporate office, a company where sales is king but downsizing is necessary. Their department has two openings for the three, so someone must be ousted. The scent of weakness is palpable from the very first moment of interaction between nervous Thomas (Dylan Shelton) and cool and confident Isobel (Kate Glasheen). She criticizes his suit and tells him his hair is a mess, and that’s just the beginning. He is neither short nor flabby, but she convinces him he is. Her every word is aimed at undermining his virtually non-existent self-confidence.
Then arrogant Tony (Jay Stratton), who has been observing from the rear of the stage, enters the fray, and with two against one, Thomas doesn’t have a chance. His feeble attempts to fight back are futile, and the one moment endeavors to maintain some dignity turns sour when Carter (George Alexander) appears, the guy who comes in the cull the herd. Thomas pleads his case and ends up looking even more like someone you’d want to dispose of as quickly as possible.
This demoralizing conflict is played on a harshly lit square, suggestive of a boxing ring with seating is on three of the four sides. The stage is bordered by a low rail and a narrow warning track. (The production is designed and lit by Andrew J. Hungerford, who will become Know’s artistic director in June 2014.) Isobel and Tony’s abuse of Thomas is mostly verbal, but the boxing metaphor becomes real in the play’s very dark final moments.
Although Bull’s outcome is obvious from the opening volley between Isobel and Thomas, Bartlett’s play is a fine piece of writing for capable performers. Director Brian Robertson has paced the production with intense velocity, and his cast makes the most of the material. Shelton’s cowering and wincing is the physical embodiment of his weak-willed soul. Glasheen’s character is etched in icy precision, showing virtually no evidence of emotion other than a single-minded intent to destroy Thomas. As Tony, Stratton is more of a brash predator, full of forced grins and an overbearing physicality. They pummel the poor nebbish with personal questions and outrageous judgments until he’s totally off-balance. When Alexander makes is brief appearance as Carter, the boss and decision-maker, it’s evident that he’s cut from the same unfeeling cloth, although his judgments are somewhat more sophisticated. Nevertheless, he proceeds unemotionally and almost surgically, making the inevitable choice to cut Thomas loose.
“Obvious” is the challenge with Bull, however. As noted, there is never a moment’s doubt that the hapless Thomas will be the odd man out, no chance he’ll turn the tables on his persecutors or escape with some dignity. Bartlett was wise to keep his script to about 50 minutes in length; much longer would have felt excessively nasty, although that assessment is certainly likely by some who attend. It’s not easy to watch Thomas being terrorized, but somehow we are drawn by cruel fascination to see just how he will ultimately be crushed. We might not love losers, but watching their destruction somehow makes us feel superior. Not better, to be sure. Bull is an exploration of a darkest side of human nature, our inherent desire to dominate others.
You won’t like anyone you see onstage in this savage tale. You’ll probably question your own enjoyment of the show’s dark humor and vicious actions. But the acting and staging of Bull make this a riveting piece of theater.
BULL , presented by Know Theatre, continues through Nov. 30 .