BWW Review: BULLY DANCE Looks for the Light
Written by David Valdes Greenwood, Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz; Lighting Designer, Connor Van Ness; Composer, Sam Beebe; Sound Coordinator, Chris Larson; Stage Manager, Becca Freifeld; Scenic & Costume Design, Sarah Gazdowicz; Props Design & Fight Coordinator, Brett Marks; Electrician, Kevin Parker
CAST: Christopher Nourse, Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Juliet Bowler, Charlotte Kinder, Lida McGirr, Adam Lauver
Performances through March 22 by Argos Productions at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.argosproductions.com
On the Massachusetts Turnpike just west of the Allston-Brighton exit, there is a massive billboard sponsored by Stop Handgun Violence which tracks the approximate number of gun deaths in America since the December, 2012, massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Not quite fifteen months later, the grim tally is well over 39,000, and the digital numbers continue to increase by an estimated 83 per day. It is a mind-boggling figure making it impossible to absorb all of the information about each of those deaths, the vast majority of which don't make the nightly news. Yet each of the victims leaves behind a network of family and friends, as well as their larger community, all of whom are the collateral damage seeking to make sense of the violence. As if.
Playwright David Valdes Greenwood comes at the subject with a fresh approach and some personal experience, having found himself in the middle of an incident that culminated in a shooting on a bus traveling from Maine to Boston. While loosely based on what happened, his new play Bully Dance broadly explores the randomness of being in the right place at the wrong time, the anger and grief of the bereaved, and, uncharacteristically, the impact on the perpetrator's loved ones. Under the auspices of Argos Productions at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, Director Sarah Gazdowicz crafts a respectful, somber staging that reflects both the horror of the event and the struggle to find the light in the aftermath of devastating loss.
Choosing to use a narrator and the structure of a choral requiem to tell the story, Greenwood allows each character to share his or her own feelings around the experience with a beautiful, haunting underscore composed by Sam Beebe. A most interesting quality of the music is its duality; its presence can make the same moment bearable and unbearable. Where words do not suffice, its effect is uplifting and gut wrenching, enhanced by the fluid movements in Gazdowicz's blocking and variations in light and shadow by Lighting Designer Connor Van Ness. Sound Coordinator Chris Larson ensures that the aural effects lay the emotional foundation for the play.
Building on that foundation is an ensemble of four women and two men who represent the spectrum of victims, survivors, and bystanders. Juliet Bowler (Nola) serves as Greenwood's alter ego, a passenger on the bus whose way of dealing with the tragedy is to investigate it and bear witness to the suffering. Lida McGirr (Alice) and Charlotte Kinder (Tammy) are the widows of men who were seemingly targeted at random by the shooter Travis (Christopher Nourse). Although they want nothing to do with her and aim their vitriol at her, the young man's mother Cora (Veronica Anastasio Wiseman) is painfully linked with Alice and Tammy. Adam Lauver (Man) plays multiple roles with distinction, including the two husbands, a passenger on the bus, and a law enforcement official.
Bully Dance commences as five strangers sit down at a rectangular table covered with a white cloth for an imagined Easter dinner. It is quickly evident that none of them wishes to be a member of this group, their common connection being a series of shootings resulting in life-changing loss for all. One by one, their stories are chillingly reenacted, complete with loud, realistic gunshots and ear-shattering screams. Disbelieving wives are handed wreaths of white flowers and draped in black head scarves to identify them as mourners. Cora is trapped in limbo between feeling her own pain and confusion and wanting to reach out to Alice and Tammy. Only Nola, who is also a mother, tries to help Cora by reporting on Travis' actions in the last moments of his life.
Bombarded as we are by news of shootings, it is easy to view the perpetrators as evil, one-dimensional monsters. In fact, in the reenactments in the play, Travis is on automatic pilot when he fires on his victims, calmly turning away after they fall. In those scenes, Nourse is stone-faced and appears to be without humanity. However, as Nola and the others seek answers for his behavior by observing the entries in his blog, Nourse becomes animated and shows many facets of his personality. Similarly, we learn more about the victims Jim and Wally that explains the reason Travis targeted them. Most importantly, Greenwood makes it difficult for us to view the situation as black and white, forcing us to accept the reality that bad things happen and there is no talisman that offers total protection.
Bully Dance is not an easy play. To borrow a line from Arthur Miller, it demands that we pay attention, but it illuminates its unpleasant theme with thoughtful writing, respectful performances, and unexpected beauty. Bringing the parties back to the dining table at some later date at the end of the play, Greenwood leaves us with the suggestion that as sure as there are random acts of evil in the world, there are random acts of kindness. He challenges us to step away from the darkness and turn towards the light, the light of humanity found in ourselves and other good people.
Photo credit: Argos Productions (Charlotte Kinder, Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Lida McGirr)