Somber music. Actors in mournful procession enter a bare stage, remove their shoes, and stare at the audience with dismally woeful expressions. The message from the onset is crystal clear: prepare yourself for a very sad hour and fifteen minutes.
Bully Dance, presented by Argos Productions through March 22nd, begins to tell the story of a teenage killer and the families of his victims. It almost explores the ordeal of mourning. It attempts to present characters with depth. It hints that it has a message about senseless violence. But it fails on all accounts.
It belongs to a new trend of plays that explore the theme of unfathomable violence for no reason other than its potent theatrical force. Boston has seen several of these in recent years, including Zeitgeist Stage Company’s Punk Rock and American Theater Company’s Columbinus. Like Bully Dance, neither came close to offering a message, moral, or significant question about violence and its aftermath. Such plays serve no purpose but to defend their own importance, their senselessness ironically mirroring the senselessness of the violence they draw upon. Nevertheless, theater companies gravitate towards these plays for their manipulative power—the audience will assuredly be moved to sadness and even fear. To some, such emotional control, although devoid of artistic purpose, signifies effective theater.
Bully Dance, however, does not even succeed in its attempt at emotional manipulation. Its failure to achieve poignancy is in part due to poor acting and dreadful dialogue, but mostly thanks to a lack of emotional heightening. The play is evenly depressing from its first moments to the curtain call, constantly hitting upon one note—except for a ridiculous moment when that one note transforms into a carefully orchestrated three part harmony of mournful wailing. Yes, this actually happens, and yes, it is difficult to keep oneself from laughing.
Director Sarah Gazdowicz’s staging offers little other than meticulous symmetry, which, although visually arresting, merely serves as a reflection of playwright David Valdes Greenwood’s careless rejection of complexity. Not a single character is developed in a significant way. Travis, the killer, seems as though he might be interesting while being described by his mother and his victims’ survivors. Unfortunately, when finally introduced into the play’s action, he is portrayed as nothing more than a lunatic by actor Christopher Nourse, whose performance makes up in animation what it lacks in nuance.
Greenwood based his play upon experience. He witnessed a murderer commit suicide on a bus in 2006, and he was seated near enough to be splattered with the killer’s blood. This scene appears verbatim in Bully Dance, and it may represent his attempt to find some meaning in that event. It is not an autobiographical play, nor is it a straightforward account of a true story. The play employs imaginative techniques—such as having the killer and victims sit down together at Easter dinner—seemingly to explore the significance of these events, but in reality exploring nothing but their utter sadness. One can only hope that by throwing his awful experience, completely undigested, in front of an audience, and by showing that audience how very, very sad it all is, Greenwood has found some degree of closure.