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By DOUG STRASSLER
The title of Bull, Mike Bartlett's latest play, has a double meaning.
On one level, it's shorthand for "bullying," which is the central motif of a story about adults behaving like children in the workplace. Now playing at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival, the show follows Thomas, an office worker who becomes an unwitting victim of his colleagues' nasty, belittling games as they wait for their enigmatic boss to terminate an employee.
However, Bull also refers to the play's setup, which finds the audience on either side of (and in some cases, standing around) a bullring. It's the perfect habitat for these animalistic characters. (Bartlett delivered a similar metaphor with last year's drama <i>Cock</i>, which placed the characters in a cockfighting arena.)
The seeds of Bull were planted while the playwright was on vacation. "I was in Mexico City, and I went to a bull fight," he explains. "It was a thrilling, shocking, and completely unique event, and it made me wonder what the equivalent play would be. Immediately I thought of bullying in the workplace, which I've seen and encountered."
Designer Soutra Gilmour envisioned something that melded elements of both a sporting event and a corporate environment. "I collected lots of references of glass offices, pod-like rooms, and sleek corporate architecture, then fused them with a rougher, more sports arena/boxing ring aesthetic," she says. "The emptiness of the space, its bleakness mixed with a space dynamic that gives real energy, has supported the language of the play."
To build a bullring inside a theatre, the technical team had to eviscerate the house. "Reconfiguring what is essentially a proscenium space into a hybrid in-the-round/transverse set-up has a number of issues," says Jim Sparnon, production manager for 59E59. "Luckily, [owner] Elysabeth Kleinhans and her architect had the foresight to install a fully retractable seating bank, allowing for some significant flexibility in seating arrangements and playing areas." Bringing in risers to replace the fixed seating bank helped, and while it increased the budget for scenery and installation, the new arrangement also upped the seating capacity from 99 to 107.
While they're always welcome to sit down, interested audience members can also stand close to the actors on a first-come, first served basis. "I think the fact that the audience is not only in the round but standing enhances the characteristics of being in [a bullring]," Sparnon says. "You're going to be moving, and this adds some serious buzz to the atmosphere of the room and the play."
Ultimately, this layout serves Bartlett's theme of human cruelty in the office. "I hope as well as entertaining, the play gives the audience an experience of being able to see when the dynamics of a workplace slip from healthy competition and team politics to something more sinister and primal," he says. "And that perhaps the systems in place encourage this."
Doug Strassler is a writer based in New York City
Photo by Carol Rosegg