A lights-up pop-up performance presented in the round, with an audience watching from point blank as a man is cruelly, relentlessly bullied for a solid hour. With its production of Bull, Hypnic Jerk Theatre presents itself as Ten Thousand Things' evil twin.
"A hypnic jerk is the involuntary twitch that occurs when a person is beginning to fall asleep, often causing them to awaken suddenly," explains the cover of the program for Bull, which opened this past weekend at St. Paul's Element boxing gym. Next weekend, the four-person cast are stepping out of the ring for a short run at the A-Mill Artist Lofts.
Mike Bartlett's 2013 play is a fine showcase for the talents of director Kari Steinbach's four-person cast, but it doesn't go much beyond that demonstration purpose. Cross Franz Kafka with Neil LaBute and you have some idea of this pulverizing play about a hapless schmuck named Thomas (David Wasserman) whose coworkers Isobel (Lauren Diesch) and Tony (Ben Shaw) torture him with boundless contempt.
The three are waiting for a meeting with their boss (Rod Kleiss), who has to make a staff cut. Which of the three will be cut? Tony and Isobel are pretty sure it's going to be Thomas, but just to be on the safe side, they demoralize their coworker with psychological torture including, but not limited to, jabs at his wardrobe, his body, and his family. Eventually, the play ends. There are no twists, except of the knife.
If you're sick of plays that try to heal our country's wounds, Bull might be for you: It merely dramatizes the leadership style our president prides himself on, with no pretense that meanness doesn't work. It's a sick spectacle, but Diesch and Shaw pull it off with aplomb. Shaw even has the chiseled abs the script requires Tony to humiliate Thomas with, and Diesch enthusiastically nuzzles up to them to prove that she can't be embarrassed — only Thomas can.
Hopefully the company will find a meatier script to test their talents next time around, because Steinbach (who debuted the Hypnic Jerk moniker for the 2014 Fringe show Panties On My Head: Real Stories from MN Roller Derby) pushes this one to its readily-achieved limits. Wasserman does his damnedest to pace his inexorable slide down the slope of self-effacement, while Kleiss plays his boss from hell with an aptly vacant smile.
The concept, particularly for the performances staged in a boxing ring, is that we're meant to reflect on our culture of sadism as entertainment. The problem is that there's nothing particularly reflective about Bartlett's script, which just keeps plunking away at the same note. With respect to the company's name, you won't fall asleep at Bull...but you might wish you could.
IF YOU GO:
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Through June 3
A-Mill Artists Lofts Performance Space