Riding the Bull
nytheatre.com review by Pete Boisvert
August 11, 2007
Plays focusing on religious faith and devotion and their place in our world often fall into one of two camps. Either they become bogged down in the seriousness of the weight of their subject, or they madly tear down sacred cows in an attempt to offend and shock us. Flux Theatre Ensemble's production of August Schulenburg's Riding the Bull finds the sweet spot between cynicism and piety, giving us a stunningly imaginative comedy that never loses sight of its own heart.
Gaylord Mitchell, or GL as he prefers to be called, is a Catholic rodeo clown in the small, primarily Baptist town of Godsburg, Texas. A sweet, slightly naïve soul, he's perpetually wracked with guilt about his sinful temptations (primarily involving his collection of Sears & Roebucks catalogues). When GL is "tempted" in the confessional at church, he is promptly excommunicated.
In order to win his way back into the good graces of the Church, GL seeks out Fat Lyza, a rude, foul-tempered, and sacrilegious girl, in order to accuse her of the vandalizing the town's nativity scene. Lyza is a caustic individual who holds the world at arms length; early in the play she declares "I don't lie; the truth is better for pissing people off."
GL and Lyza bicker and fight, but eventually end up going for a (literal) roll in the hay. As they reach climax, Lyza screams out another man's name—and the next day that man wins the rodeo competition. Each time they "tempt" each other, another winning bull rider is revealed, and soon GL is wagering on the rodeo and amassing a small fortune.
GL soon becomes the richest man in town, buying "recommunication" from the Church as well as cars, toys, and much of the town's property. Lyza has spent much of the play questioning his religious zeal, but as he revels in his wealth she realizes that he has merely replaced one form of fanaticism with another. As GL's greed becomes his dominant drive Lyza begins experiencing religious visions, causing the two characters to trade perspectives and roles.
With only two actors onstage for the entirety of the play and a dense, monologue driven script, there is a danger of the production disappearing into its own navel. Kelly O'Donnell's direction avoids this pitfall masterfully, keeping the audience constantly engaged in the emotional and religious journeys of GL and Lyza. Jason Paradine's set is a boon to the play as well. The action of the play is contained in a small fenced-in corral, dominated by a gigantic faux marble statue of Jesus, and every prop that is used in the show is laid out around the edges from the first moment of the play.
Will Ditterline plays GL as a lanky mama's boy, uncomfortable in his own body. Ditterline's timing is precise throughout, as he deftly shifts back and forth between broad, cartoonish humor and bittersweet introspection and guilt. As Fat Lyza, Liz Dailey is a hoot. She insults, curses, and eats her way through the play, nailing Schulenburg's loopy humor throughout. Unfortunately, Lyza's path from the profane to the sacred is less fully realized than GL's movement in the other direction, although whether this problem originated in the script, direction or acting is unclear.
Schulenburg's writing is impressive throughout. The play is thickly layered, while never getting bogged down in its material. Schulenburg's tackles so many issues here that it feels like the play should collapse under its own weight, and yet it never does. For all of its broad, surreally comic moments, it's the sweet sincerity of the script that stays with the audience in the end.