Preview: Bull

Office intimidation has razor-sharp horns in Mike Bartlett’s dark comedy Bull

BULL by Mike Bartlett, directed by David Ferry, with Diana Bentley, Mark Caven, Ryan Rogerson and Damon Runyan. The Coal Mine (798 Danforth). Previews begin Sunday (March 15), opens Tuesday (March 17) and runs to April 5, Tuesday-Sunday 7:30 pm. $20-$25.

Think The Apprentice is cut-throat and nasty?

Check out what happens in Bull, in which three team workers learn one of them has to be fired from a company that’s downsizing.

Written by Mike Bartlett (Cock), the play pits Tony, Isobel and Thomas against each other. And nothing’s easier and more effective than to have two of them gang up on the third. It’s Thomas who’s the odd man out as Tony and Isobel gang up to push him over the cliff’s edge in a cruel, bullying manner.

“In many ways this is a terrifying script, given what the characters do to each other,” admits Diana Bentley, who plays Isobel in the Coal Mine production. “But I had to get into Isobel’s head and understand that she doesn’t see how she treats others as horrible.

“In fact, she finds her actions to be normal and right. In behaving in a cold, calculating way she’s removing her own key weaknesses: vulnerability, emotion and the imperfection she loathes in other people. She’s strong and tough, and I admire that, but her other qualities are upsetting.

“It’s scary to get into that headspace,” acknowledges the actor, who runs the Coal Mine with Ted Dykstra, “looking as others as annoying, ugly, not good enough. The loving and healthy part of me sees it as gross, but we all have a part, however small, that responds to destruction and viciousness.”

Isobel is the only woman in the show, and Bentley sees her reacting to not being treated as an equal to the men.

“She’s repeatedly called a bitch and seen as not being sexy the men use anything to belittle her. But she retaliates, handling her feminine power as a weapon, a way of saying ‘fuck you, no one’s going to treat me like that.’”

“Isobel uses Tony, Thomas and Carter, their boss who appears partway through the play, for her own ends, drawing on everything in her tool kit: sexuality, charm, a sense of humour and playing one man off against another.”

She turns out to be the alpha in the room, though Tony is the head of the work team and technically the top dog.

And how does Carter’s entrance change the play?

“Tony and Isobel are such chameleons that they can easily shift from their earlier taunting games with Thomas to being submissive, polite, well-mannered and well-presented. Even their language changes they speak a new office tongue like obedient little schoolchildren.

“Thomas, of course, isn’t so facile. The adult bullying the play deals with questions how much the victim participates in his treatment. How responsible is Thomas for what happens?”

The script calls for a staging that has the audience watching the actors work in a kind of pit, but director David Ferry’s gone further, putting a net around the action in the style of an Ultimate Fighting Championship.

If you caught the first show at the Coal Mine, Bob Kills Theatre’s excellent The Motherfucker With The Hat, you might expect Bull to be full of explicit language. It’s not, but it moves at as fast a pace.

“These people think so quickly and their tongues are lightning swift and sharp. Expect a dark comedy expressed in British slang. We’re thinking of it as the original version of The Office meets David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.”

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