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TheatreLAB Riding the Bull

By • Mar 21st, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Riding the Bull
TheatreLAB: (Info) (Web)
Sycamore Rouge, Petersburg, VA
Through March 23rd
$15/$10 Seniors, Students
Reviewed March 19th, 2013

I had thought I was not going to be able to catch any more of the entries in the Acts of Faith Festival, but based on several recommendations, I squeezed in TheatreLAB’s production of Riding the Bull. I am glad that I did.

This play has it all — comedy, drama, allegory, symbolism and pathos. It even had a veritable who’s who in Richmond’s actors, directors and producers in attendance to show their support (apparently I wasn’t the only one to hear about it through word of mouth).

Gaylord “GL” Mitchell (Deejay Gray) is a rodeo clown in Godsburg, Texas. He tries to be a good man and a good Catholic, but he faces many temptations in his life, including a crazy mother and an absent father. He especially has problems with lust and hatred of fat people. Of course, he ends up falling for the fattest woman he knows, Lyza Mary (Maggie Bavalack). She is like a younger and “larger” Vicky Lawrence in “Mama’s Family.” Acerbic, yet still likeable and laughable.

The two end up having passionate, lustful sex — with one problem. Every time they make love, Lyza calls out another man’s name. At first, GL thinks they are the names of Lyza’s other boyfriends, but eventually he figures out that she is some how calling out the names of men who are about the win big sporting events. The two devise a gambling scheme where they can rake in a small fortune. However, as in life, enough is never enough and GL keeps wanting more.

The slow emotional transition of the two characters in the play is riveting. GL starts out as a sweet, innocent, warm and engaging southern hick — a cross between Gomer Pyle and Jimmy Chance on “Raising Hope.” Lyza begins as a slovenly, self-loathing atheist, who eats an entire pie in one sitting in the first scene. Act 1 is pure comedy, with Gray and Bavalack masterfully handling the pair’s banter, dead-pan humor and one liners. In the second act, everything changes. GL becomes mean and hateful and selfish, whereas Lyza becomes the empathetic character, and even “finds God” and believes her predictions are tied to visions from God.

My companion for the evening, Katie, pointed out that through the play she saw a new way to “believe.” Tactile things like money, notoriety, and sex don’t compare to what we believe, or desperately want to believe.

Playwright August Schulenburg wonderfully twists the story line, eventually punctuating the change in the two characters by having Lyza take over the narration that GL had been supplying throughout the show. Without revealing too much, the laughs are over by the end of Act 2, as GL’s innocence turns to selfishness and rage, and Lyza’s self loathing turns to self-realization and heartache. Both Gray and Bavalack are believable and raw in their emotions and vulnerability. A fight scene is realistic and intense (and again, I won’t spoil the ending). Bavalack’s anguished deep sobs are heart-rending.

Schulenburg also uses many interpretations to the “bull” in Riding the Bull. Does it refer to GL and Lyza’s sexual relationship? Does it stand for GL’s job as a rodeo clown, where others “ride the bull.” Is it a reference to Lyza’s bull “Suarte” which is Spanish for destiny or luck? Is it all the above?

Director Sarah Roquemore used the stage well. At the production on Tuesday at Gallery 5, she made good use of a small space to keep the action moving, varied and interesting. With the help of Set Designer McLean Jesse, the stage is simply adorned with bales of hay and a few saw horses which are moved and used as tables, chairs, cars, windows, etc., creating the essence of each scene. Jesse doubled as costumer, and visually enhanced the changes in the two characters between acts 1 and 2 with perfectly varied costumes, make-up and hair styles.

Among the nice touches were the singing duo of Brad Tuggle and Rebecca Muhleman who serenaded the audience with country music until the show started.

I always try to find something positive and some constructive criticism for each show, but Riding the Bull makes it hard to find fault. Bavalack does a fine Elvis impression earlier in the play, but seems to lose it at the emotional climax of the play. Gray is perfect with his facial expressions and movements as the “good” GL in Act 1, but could develop more “evil” in his expressions and mannerisms in Act 2.

Beyond that, all I can do is encourage you to catch the extended run of Riding the Bull closing this Saturday night at Sycamore Rouge. Trust me, the word of mouth is right on this one!

Director’s Note

Dear friends,

Thank you for supporting TheatreLAB and joining us for our first of hopefully many acts of Faith shows. When I first read August Schulenburg’s Riding the Bull a few years ago, I was smitten. It was quirky, touching, and, most importantly, it was about everything I love. Jesus, Elvis, and even the Lone Star State.

My grandparents own several acres of land in East Texas. I’ve only been there once when I was very young, but I have this vivid memory of the drive to “the farm” from their house outside of Houston. I remember passing by dilapidated farms and ramshackle fences, cud-chewing cows, rusted oil wells, and dusty, empty roads for what seemed like days. And every 25, 50 miles or so, there’d be an old church, a few houses, maybe a diner or two.

I imagine Godsburg as one of these towns. Tiny and slow, sepia-toned, where God and Texas are all anyone could ever need to know of the world.

Yet the story told here transcends its small town limits. In talking about this script, I once referred to it as a southern morality play, and I do still think an argument can be made to that effect. But as these talented actors have brought flesh and blood to Lyza and GL, I’ve realized that this story is so much more than a simple Sunday school lesson. This is a story of Juxtaposition. It’s a story of loss and love; of grace and damnation; of denial and belief. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, beautiful and terrifying, edgy and earnest. In short, it’s human.

There couldn’t be a better show for TheatreLAB to produce for Acts of Faith. We are so proud to be a part of this festival and to premiere this phenomenally rich script in Richmond.

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the bull.

Sarah Roquemore

Photo Gallery

Photo 1 Photo 2
Photo 3

Photos provided by TheatreLAB

The Cast

  • GL Mitchell: Deejay Gray
  • Lyza Mary: Maggie Bavalack

The Crew

  • Director: Sarah Roquemore
  • Stage Manager: Addie Pawlick
  • Production Manager: Theresa Mantiply
  • Costume and Set Designer: McLean Jesse
  • Producers, Lighting and Sound Design: Matt Shofner and Maggie Roop
  • Production Assistant: Michael Musatow
  • Fight Choreographer: Axle Burtness
  • Poster Design: Adam Darland
  • Promotional Videography: Annie Colpitts
  • Photographer: Ben Hill

Disclaimer: TheatreLAB provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is by day a Special Education teacher, teaching History, Science and drama to Middle and High School students in a private Day School in Stafford. He has degrees in Educational Media and Special Education. He is also a part time Radio News Anchor and occasional actor in the Richmond area. Bruce is a native of New Jersey and spent most of his "adult" life in Upstate New York, where he started and ran a national award winning youth theater and cable television program for over 10 years. He has lived in Virginia since 2002, and in Caroline County since 2005, where he is active in many community groups; including serving on the Board of Caroline's Promise.

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