Mirrorbox’s ‘Bully’ a tireless and tenacious examination of darkness

Mirrorbox Theatre Presents: Bully

CSPS Legion Arts — through March 2

The Iowa premiere of Amina Henry’s ‘Bully’ runs this weekend only at CSPS Legion Arts. — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

The Iowa premiere of Amina Henry’s Bully has exploded into Eastern Iowa and there is simply no going back. This thought-provoking piece will leave you examining the surface of our society and what symptoms come with being diagnosed a “woman.”

If you’ve ever been to a Mirrorbox show, you know that the space is limiting. A small black box with no obvious entrances or exits. No frills. No technical mountains climbed. Just an explosion of raw creativity and props, set and costumes on a shoestring budget, within a pretty restrictive location (one of my personal favorite puzzles to play with and, hopefully/ideally, solve).

I’ve seen four Mirrorbox shows at CSPS so far, and not one of them has had the same audience-stage configuration. The company constantly plays with the space in surprising ways, seeing what walls they can push — metaphorically and literally — to keep the experience fresh. It might not always be 100% successful, but the “playing” is the thing, is it not?

The lights for Bully (Jim Vogt) are simple — just a few specials to illustrate some moments; practicals in the form of candles; and an underwater/rain effect towards the end of the show. The set (Tim Slaven, consultant) is very minimal, one raised platform upstage and an area on the ground that doubles as an apartment or a hard hitting aerobics/training class.

The actors are mostly in workout gear for the show. It’s almost jarring when they aren’t because it offers a visual indicator of a different side of the characters — a simple and effective way to offer the audience a different perspective of someone on the stage. There were some masks and hoodies utilized in certain moments that seemed almost cumbersome in the transition and ultimately provided imagery of intimidation that I wished we’d either had more of throughout the show or not at all.

Mirrorbox Theatre presents ‘Bully,’ by Amina Henry. — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

The sound design was fun and evocative of a 90s era flash-in-the-pan pop rock feminism, with songs from the Spice Girls, Meredith Brooks, etc. These “girl-power” songs were jarring — sometimes in a truly effective way but at others times they felt underutilized. Though I’m unsure of the technical capabilities in the space, I wanted more of an almost unbearable crescendo of sound over an increasingly intense physical altercation — those sweet and spicy girls offering tunes of BFF solidarity and independence while we are left watching women battle it out felt like a missed opportunity.

I sat in the back row and quickly found that I had some fairly significant sightline issues for this tale of the female jungle. There was a boxing ring that came and went and, while I appreciated the concept and emotional imagery it helped to further illustrate, it placed a floor to ceiling wooden 2-by-4 in the middle of everything I saw on the platform. However, as the platform was raised, I actually had an easier time of seeing the action than when the performers were on the ground level if they were sitting in a chair or on the floor in particular.

But, like I said, the space has limitations. We as the audience have to decide if we’re willing to put up with things like this when seeing their shows. My answer? Hell yes.

This predominantly woman-led show (both cast and crew) boasts an incredibly strong group of female performers, helmed and guided by Katy Hahn’s direction. Hahn’s vision helped each performer to an honest and unique grasp of their individual characters. These actors, in their characters well-loved workout gear, were pushed and pulled (emotionally and physically) while traversing a landscape of the crumbling remnants of a (slowly collapsing?) patriarchy.

Their commitment was, in many ways, epic. This was a true ensemble piece of incredible women working together. They exerted their energies and emotions and kicked some major butt. I would be lying if I said wasn’t afraid of them, jealous of them, and near ready to leap out of my seat to join them at several moments during the play.

There is a lot of combat in this show. Some consensual for the characters, most not. The actors are accomplishing incredible physical feats — from intense workouts to full-on fisticuffs. I loved how full of energy they all were, but I was honestly on the fence about how the violence was displayed.

Hahn went with a more obviously theatrical violence, envisioned and choreographed by Cara Viner, but I almost wished we could have had a more visceral visual of near misses. The fights felt more along the lines of movement, dance, or even a zumba/kickboxing routine, rather than the real threat of pain and fear that I craved (though I will always applaud a strong choice!).

‘Bully’ digs at a darkness many want to ignore. — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

There are few themes untouched within the story. For victims of assault — how the assault, in many ways, continues. How one violent event can change a person, color their future selves, the suffering remaining a constant. How the anger can fester and how the realization (and subsequent resentment) of “why did it happen to me/of course it happened to me” layers on more shame and rage than a person should have to carry.

Talking through it seems like a weak response to a complex and harrowing attack, it feels impossible that it could help. So: to hit or be hit? That is the question for the women on the receiving end of violence in this tale. What secure and trustworthy place can you put all of that? And if you give in to that kind of release, is it a balm or another scar to navigate? Could it potentially open a door near impossible to close?

Then there are the “mean girls.” And the expectations: “Women should be tougher”; “Women should be fit, thin and beautiful” There’s the bulimia, the body-shaming, the intimidation — a feeling of worthlessness at not reaching the unreachable goal of perfection. There’s the feeling that we don’t deserve to be happy, because we are not good enough — because we can never ever reach a mythological ideal we’ve been groomed to chase. And through it all, we hurt each other. We climb over each other to get to the first spot in line for that ridiculous notion of … what, really?

Who knows the accurate, all-encompassing title to place on this, but boy are we angry about it. We are part of a society that culls all those who aren’t respectable young, white, cis-men (with promising swimming careers ahead of them). Where women can be forced by their university to see their sexual assaulters in mediation. Where a woman held for in prison for 15 years for defending herself and killing her manipulative abuser is finally released only due to the many wailing vaginas and vagina sympathizers tirelessly warring for these injustices to cease.

One last chance to see Amina Henry’s ‘Bully,’ tonight at CSPS Legion Arts. — Greg Billman/Mirrorbox Theatre

Where a man can compare women to dogs, or insist a woman’s behavior is because there’s “blood coming out of her wherever,” or can even grab your pussy — and then be elected to the highest office on the planet.

And there really aren’t fulfilling, socially acceptable and safe places to put this rage. There’s no handbook, people. But we’re sick of being seen as, and feeling feeling like, victims and animals: And, if you notice anything in Bully, you will notice that not a single women in it lives in either of these categories. Amina Henry’s play is the most ferocious meditation on a pervasive societal cancer I’ve ever witnessed. And it will make you think. And problem solve — because this human problem (not male, not female: human) has been swept under the rug too many times.

Henry deserves a helluva high-five, y’all.

No matter what thoughts pop into your brain after seeing this show — and there will be so many thoughts some similar to mine, some in contradiction, some not yet mapped — it will stick in your craw for longer than anticipated. You will be a little more afraid and a little more fearless and the curiosity of a “what if” will overtake you for a time. It’s simply the nature of the material.

A hearty congratulations to all involved in this fiery, thought provoking production. It’s a good time for fire. Bully has just one more performance, tonight, March 2, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Go get yourself provoked.

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