The mythic and the humdrum routinely do their funky little jig, the cosmic and the commonplace woven together until, at certain moments, it's damned hard to tell them apart. Eisa Davis's Bulrusher consistently keeps one toe in each stream, blending the ethereal and the earthy with meandering but consistently evocative effect.
There's no easy way to summarize all the currents at play here. The action is rooted in the northern California town of Boonville in 1955. A young woman named Bulrusher (Christiana Clark) appears under a waterfall in the opening scene, reciting visionary quasi-poetry about her oddball status in both her burg and in the bigger picture. It turns out she was a foundling, rescued from the local river in a basket as a newborn (sharing frequent floater status with Moses) and raised by local schoolmaster Schoolch (Mark Rosenwinkel).
Lest we stray too far into the ether, much of the action takes place in the local brothel, where Madame (Jodi A. Kellogg) trades barbs with lusty Logger (James A. Williams, carving out his character with an unapologetic mix of primal baseness and underlying sweetness), who is one of two African Americans in town (along with Bulrusher herself). Schoolch, for his part, sits at a table silently sipping tea—indeed, we're well into this thing before he is called on to utter a single line.
Why Schoolch is hanging out in a brothel during his free time has to do with long-term romantic entanglements; short-term romance appears in the form of Vera (Sonja Parks), who shows up in town unexpectedly. Bulrusher falls for her pretty much at first sight, while also fending off the advances of Boy (John Catron), a hunka burnin' love who, seemingly arbitrarily, decides Bulrusher is his gal.
Have I mentioned that Bulrusher is endowed with considerable psychic gifts, talks to the local river, spews out weather forecasts that would make Paul Douglas immolate himself in shame, and can read folks' futures by immersing her hands in water they've touched? Clark gives an assured performance as this impossible character: raw, eager, hungry, and entirely devoid of guile. Her chemistry with Parks's secretive Southern city girl informs a good deal of the push-pull.
Spicing the stew is Davis's liberal use of Boontling, a weird slang that apparently sprang up around real-life Boonville (read the glossary in the program if you show up early. It will help). So, you know, if you're dove cooey and dehigged after the show, you might at least hold out hope for a little ricky chow or, in lieu of that, a tidrey of nonch harpin'.
With apologies to the easily offended for the previous sentence, Davis's use of what locals call the ling underscores her complicated waltz between tones of folktale, supernatural creepiness, and the call of the loins (Logger eagerly jogs up the main aisle of the theater at one point, disappearing behind us as he goes off to discharge his lust).
Director Marion McClinton's work brings to mind an observation I heard recently: Bad direction makes itself abundantly evident, while good direction hides itself from the eye. For all the tensions and turns at play here, this show manages a strong and convincing internal logic; the choices made throughout seem so self-evident as to be invisible. And while at moments it feels like watching two plays (maybe three) at the same time, the performers clearly know where they are and where they are going.
And where is that, exactly? To a final reckoning with the past, which comes in a rush of dry ice in a harrowing, murder-tinged moment between Bulrusher and Madame. Here's a show that contemplates the eternal misfit, a role that each of us knows, our lives playing out strings that surprise us while we're busy being seduced by the familiar. Davis has written a weird, sometimes inspired play, and this production digs into its ambiguity in a way that is as strange as life itself.