BWW Review: BULRUSHER from Intiman Fails to Engage
Eighty percent of having a successful show is casting. If you have the right cast, even the dullest show can shine. However, that means the opposite is also true. You can have a good play, such as Eisa Davis' "Bulrusher", currently being offered from Intiman Theatre, but if the cast isn't there, then neither is the decent storytelling. In the case of Intiman's show, the cast is mostly there, but one glaring weak link sapped the energy and emotion from a piece that should be filled with energy and emotion.
In Davis's play, it's 1955 in the town of Boonville, CA. A small former logging town with one special resident, Bulrusher (Ayo Tushinde). She's a young, independent, mixed-race girl who was found floating in a basket in the river as a baby. Raised by a local teacher Schoolch (Charles Leggett), Bulrusher has the gift of clairvoyance linked to her relationship with the river. But even though she can see other's futures, she can't find her own place in the world until another young black girl Vera (Allyson Lee Brown) comes into town and opens Bulrusher's eyes to the world around her.
The casting is not the only downfall here as Davis' play feels overblown and muddled. She's jammed as many hot button topics as she can into the narrative and then to make matters worse, she's peppered the show with "Boontling", a rare lingo used in the area. And while the use of these words may spice up the tone of the evening it lends more an air of confusion than the exotic as it makes getting the story across even more frustrating. Sure, they've given us a glossary of terms in the program and even more in the lobby but without studying them or taking a class before the show, much of what they say goes right over the audiences' head. Then there's that ending wherein after the climactic moment occurs, everyone goes back to life as normal as if nothing happened. In that moment, people are betrayed, more questions are brought up than answered, and huge secrets are revealed that should shake these people's lives, but then in the following final scene they all behave like it was all no big deal.
Director Valerie Curtis-Newton does what she can with keeping the show going but she's not blameless either. Aside from the casting, she also strains the pace of the show with a constant rearranging of the set to indicate new locales. And while necessary, it's done in a very purposeful way. In fact, the first few minutes of the show we sat watching the cast set up all the pieces, apple boxes and chairs and such, and place props in trap doors around the stage. Because that's interesting? On the contrary it starts the show off with a presentational and wonky paced tone and never quite gets itself out of it.
Many of the cast are outstanding. Tushinde and Brown are delightful together with acres of chemistry making the scenes with just the two of them the bright spots of the show. If it had just been their story alone, it would have been much more enjoyable. Adam Fontana as "Boy" is likable enough but a bit one-note and never really grows at all during the show. However, that has more to do with the two-dimensionality of how his character is written than him. Leggett is always great but here is given so little to do and even less to say. On the other hand, the amazing Reginald Andre Jackson as "Logger" is given plenty to say but it's mostly for exposition. And both feel wasted in the show especially as the majority of their scenes and storylines are paired with the aforementioned casting misstep, Christine Pilar as Madame, the proprietor of the local brothel. With Pilar I don't think I've seen a more out of place and lackluster performance. She conveys little emotion or intent with every line and for a character who's at the core of the story and the emotional resolution, that's deadly. Each scene with her resulted in a severe dip in energy of the show and since she opens the show (after the oh, so thrilling scenery setting moment) as well as being integral to the emotional climax, the show just sort of lays there.
With weird direction, a lack of energy and pace, and a confused script, the two and a half hours of the show feels interminable. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Intiman Theatre's production of "Bulrusher" a "please just let it end" NAH. The show might have worked, even with that ending, with some better choices, but as it is it does not.