James Ryan Gobuty
Upon entering The Coal Mine and seeing the stage surrounded by an arena cage like a mixed martial arts fight, you know that this play isn’t going to pull any punches. In our dog-eat-dog world, what happens to the person on the lowest rung of the social ladder? What is to be done with the weakest link? Mike Bartlett’s Bull brings these questions to life on stage and shows the audience the bloodlust behind the will to succeed.
From the beginning, it’s obvious that Thomas (Ryan Rogerson) is the odd one out at the office. He’s shorter, chubbier, perhaps less beautiful than his peers, all of which is explained to him in brutal detail.
Bull shows the violent dynamics at play in contemporary corporate culture, as Thomas is continuously harassed by his co-workers Isobel (Diana Bentley) and Tony (Damon Runyan), while they wait to convince their boss Carter (Mark Caven) to keep them in the company.
The brilliance of Mike Bartlett’s script lies in its willingness to follow the paradigm of bullying to its logical conclusion. What begins as schoolyard taunting morphs into brutal psychological abuse, and eventually into sheer physical violence. Although the play becomes less realistic as the action escalates, this only serves to strengthen the idea that the way we behave in adulthood is a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind, from the sort of base cruelty we can observe in children. Of course, the nuances of Mike Bartlett’s script can’t have a fraction of its intended impact without the outstanding performance of the cast.
The success of a play like Bull lies in mastering the pace, so as to build tension and weave from humour to horror in an instant, something that The Coal Mine cast has spot on. Ryan Rogerson’s performance in particular shows a great amount of insight, as his entire physicality demonstrates his character’s shift from equal contestant to wounded animal; you can see from the look in his eye the moment that he realizes that the game has been fixed. Diana Bentley and Damon Runyan are perfect as the quintessential Alpha female and Alpha male, using every available resource—their sexuality, their athleticism and their class—to brutalize Thomas and come out on top.
Of course, director David Ferry also deserves his share of kudos for orchestrating the tight pacing of the show. The play never misses a beat, something that allows the humour to constantly flow through. This is necessary because without the audiences’ laughter implicating them in the world of the play, the deeper moral argument is lost.
What can I say, folks? The Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Bull is a real winner. It’s provocative, funny, well performed and thoughtfully constructed. It’s clear that The Coal Mine is setting itself up to be one of the more important and inventive theatres in Toronto after only its second production and I for one can’t wait to see their next show.
Bull is playing until April 5 at The Coal Mine Theatre, 798 Danforth Avenue, under the Magic Oven Pizza. Tickets can be purchased online at brownpapertickets.com.
photo credit: Michael Cooper