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Cock-and-Bull Stories

By Rick Pender · November 13th, 2013 · Curtain Call

Know Theatre is typically the last of our local professional theaters out of the gate in the fall. It takes the small company a while to recuperate from the Fringe Festival, from being a venue for the MidPoint Music Festival and from the numerous other activities they host at their Jackson Street venue in Over-the-Rhine. But they’re finally in the midst of the run of their first regular production for fall 2013, Mike Bartlett’s Bull.

If you’re a Know regular, you might remember this British playwright’s name: He also wrote Cock, a show Know staged back in April and May. Know is, in fact, the first theater company in the U.S. to present both of Bartlett’s scripts, a theatrical exploration of “cock-and-bull” themes, as you might observe. 

Cock was the story of a troubled man caught in a tug-of-war between two relationships — one with his former gay partner, the other with a woman with whom he is unexpectedly and inexplicably smitten. Bull is another story of a man in the middle, but no one is trying to win him over. 

The story, set in a corporate office where three employees are vying for two open positions, is a nasty tale of bullying. Isobel and Tony are out to demolish the low man on the totem pole, a worrywart named Thomas. 

Both of Know’s productions of Bartlett’s scripts, staged with momentum and clarity by Brian Robertson, have featured strong casts. Bartlett, who’s 33, writes the kind of dialogue that good actors like sinking their teeth into, and he’s generated nearly two dozen scripts since he began writing professionally a decade ago. I’m only familiar with Cock and Bull, of course, each of which runs 60 minutes or less, distilling intense insights and packed with powerful emotions.

In a 2009 interview, Bartlett told a reporter with U.K.

newspaper The Guardian, “We’ve got to get away from the idea that it’s good to go to the theater. It isn’t church. There’s nothing innately good about it. … [Theater] has to appeal to people who do jobs and have lives. Theater about theater is the most awful, terminal nonsense.”

Bartlett’s plays are most certainly not about theater. They concern people who have jobs and lives that are unsatisfying and frustrating, not to mention abusive dispositions, selfish motivations and distressingly human reactions to difficult situations. 

In Bull, cool and confident Isobel takes Thomas apart verbally so she will have the edge in competing for one of the open positions. She criticizes his suit and tells him his hair is a mess. He is neither short nor flabby, but she convinces him he is. Her every word is aimed at undermining his negligible self-confidence. 

Even more painfully, arrogant Tony physically bullies, persecutes and humiliates the defenseless Thomas, who really doesn’t have a chance. Even before the boss enters to choose a pair, the inevitable outcome — Thomas’s demise — is clear. 

So is this what theater should be? 

Of course I’m entertained by solid acting and trenchant writing, but there’s not one character in Bull that audience members can enjoy or identify with — unless they’re into sadistic behavior. They might pity hapless Thomas, but his neediness is so extreme that no one could truly feel drawn to him. 

I can’t imagine that a longer, more in-depth script would have improved either of Bartlett’s plays: These stories are so harsh and relentless that people would be turned off if they went on much longer. It’s not hard to be fascinated by cruelty, wondering just how profoundly a naïve character like Thomas might be ruined. Perhaps watching such destruction makes us feel superior. 

But I certainly don’t walk out of the theater feeling good about this kind of voyeurism — or understanding why this behavior is not surprising. Are we really willing to stand by and watch a human being be so devastated by others?

So is Know to be congratulated for bringing forward work by a young, provocative writer or condemned for being repetitive by presenting not one by two plays by a writer who portrays some of the worst aspects of human nature? 

I don’t have a ready answer, but I like the fact that we have a theater in Cincinnati that grapples with these issues. 

I do hope, however, as it moves forward under new artistic leadership, Know will broaden the spectrum of humanity it presents, while still making us take a good hard look at ourselves. That’s no cock-and-bull dream: It’s what good theater is all about.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com