Riding the Bull
nytheatre.com review by Thomas Weitz
April 30, 2005
Welcome to Godsburg, Texas! Home to a homicidal, one-horned, Spanish-speaking bull named Suerte, a town nativity scene complete with a life-sized plastic statue of Jesus, and a restaurant that reserves the right to serve only Baptists. Meet Gaylord Mitchell, a poor, oversexed Catholic rodeo clown, and Lyza Mary, an overweight, irreverent, hedonistic coital oracle. If this sounds to you like the setting for a contrived diatribe about the role of religion in society or an opportunistic assault on the religious right, don’t worry, it’s not. Although at times Riding the Bull is emotionally unsatisfying, August Schulenburg’s new two-person play offers a charming and unconventional look at the nature and definition of belief.
The play begins as Gaylord (he would prefer if you called him GL) confronts Lyza (GL would prefer if you called her ”Fat Lyza“) for rearranging the town nativity scene in sexually suggestive ways. Though he takes the religious high ground in this argument, GL can’t resist Lyza’s similarity to the women in the Sears and Roebuck catalogs he “tempts” himself with every night. The two end up entwined in a passionate roll in the hay, climaxing when Lyza screams out another man’s name.
Lyza’s outcry, proof to GL of her heathen ways, turns out to accurately foretell the next day’s bull-riding winner. A series of similarly prophetic pronouncements ensue, causing the characters to ruminate on the possibility that a good prophesy can be used for financial gain. GL convinces himself that the messages must be heaven-sent. And with God on his side, GL agrees to take part in a gambling scheme with Lyza, in the hope of providing relief for his poor mother.
The scheme goes off without a hitch, and no sooner than he can rationalize his greed, GL buys a lifetime’s worth of toys, pets, cars, and clothes. With every dollar that comes in, GL replaces another word of his religious rhetoric with a consumer equivalent: “Money is God’s currency.”
Lyza’s patience wanes as it becomes clear that GL hasn’t evolved out of his religious fanaticism but has only replaced it with a new one. His belief in the mighty dollar drives Lyza to visions of Jesus, bringing Lyza’s newfound belief into conflict with GL’s church of shopping. The play culminates in a bittersweet ending, befitting a well meaning and oblivious rodeo clown.
Despite having only two actors in the production, August Schulenburg’s play keeps a steady pace. The constant twists and turns keep the audience on its toes trying to figure out which way this eccentric journey through Godsburg will take them. In fact, the plot moves so fast at times that GL’s persistent narration appears to interrupt some of the play’s more reverential moments in an effort to catch the audience up with the storyline. In particular, Lyza’s monologues towards the end of the show seemed to be cut short, leaving me wishing they had been allowed to play out longer.
Will Ditterline is excellent as GL, with his natural lankiness lending itself well to the awkward stubbornness of his character. His expert handling of what easily could have been a campy, over-the-top fall from grace is noteworthy. His co-star (and wife), Liz Dailey, gives a good performance as Lyza Mary. Dailey is excellent as a sure-footed foil to the illogical rationale of Ditterline’s character, but unfortunately she never takes us far beyond the surface of her character.
If actors must be comfortable with silence, then set designers must be comfortable with an open set and negative space. Jason Paradine’s set, replete with bails of hay, a six-foot cross, and a wonderful representation of a one-horned bull and a fully clothed cow, instantly brings us into the world of the play, but it seems preoccupied with filling up Theater for the New City’s cavernous stage. At several times in the production I found myself distracted by the way the actors had to negotiate cramped areas of the set or how the direction was at times forced to accommodate the design instead of vice-versa.
Ultimately, Riding the Bull is never as thrilling or unsettling as GL's anecdote about facing down a bull, or as funny and disarming as Lyza tells us GL’s rodeo clowning is. Instead, we are left amazed by the unpredictable twists and turns the narrative, like a bull, makes; yet we never feel the fear and exhilaration of actually being in the ring. That being said, I think this show is more then worth the money (tickets are only $10) and full of some wonderful moments that insightfully examine how we define belief.