Dallas — Local civic and business leaders never tire of telling anyone who has even half an ear to listen that Texas, especially DFW, is the fastest growing area in the country. So much so, in fact, that we needed to pass a constitutional amendment on Nov. 5 to develop new water infrastructure or else run out in 70 years. Another measure to allow tax exemptions, for aircraft parts stored in the state, would make Texas’ massive aeronautic industry—which is third in the nation—even more competitive.
This thirst for faster and bigger development is assaulted head on by writer/director Thomas Riccio and his folk avant-garde theater company, Dead White Zombies (DWZ). Their self-generated, immersive production, Bull Game (winner loses action figures), puts on display the last, dying gasp of Western Civilization.
With the injunction to “get out of the comfortable world and into the Bull Game,” DWZ crafts what it sees as the culmination of our culture’s obsession with competition within the framework of Dystopian America’s favorite sport, the Bull Game. Complete with eugenics, dwindling resources and overpopulation, the world of the Bull Game resembles an oversexed Logan’s Run or The Hunger Games.
From the moment a large, stern-faced gentleman informs spectators they can enter the arena, which is a cross between Jerzy Grotowski’s Faust and NBC’s American Gladiator, they are pummeled by enthusiastic, abusive cheerleaders who subject them to a battery of tests to determine if any of them can become the next competitor. DWZ tries to expose vulnerabilities in its audience, forcing them either to hide in the crowd or venture forward. Both reactions are attempts not to look weak in the eyes of strangers you will see only for an hour and a half and never meet again. In order to keep the pressure real, the production keeps audience members disoriented by routinely switching between semi-darkness and bright lights accompanied by loud buzzers, as well as projecting abstract images superimposed over freeways and runners, and other staples of modern life, in front of the viewer.
A primordial ritual, the Bull Game depicts Western culture’s regression into atavism as it finds catharsis in violence. Despite the hosts’ attempts to elevate the competition to the level of religious ceremony, the game remains a celebration of ego where points are not awarded for scoring but, instead, are based on how well contestants showboat and belittle each other. Yes, the game taps into a deep-seated aspect of the human condition and succeeds in creating an event that speaks to our underlying fears, but it fails to create the myth its totalitarian masters desire. In the Bull Game, one gains nobility only through violence. In myth, heroes are forced to violence because of their nobility. This is a world where mythology has gone wrong and turned into nightmare disconnected from the collective moral consciousness that imbued bloodshed with virtue.
Armored in athletic pads and draped with chains, the reigning champion, the Bull (Chris Piper), seems to have an intrinsic, if accidental, understanding of why the games are important to humanity when he calls it “the challenge of continuation.” No mistake, he loves the women and the $45 million paycheck, but at the same time he realizes that, in a materialistic world, the populace hangs its faith in the strength of humanity on the exploits of these athletes. He does not, however, go so far as to question if heroes should perform acts of valor because of the humanity intrinsic in their people. Regardless of the braggadocio, Piper brings a refreshing measure of empathy to what is, overall, a didactic role.
Even the idealistic challenger (Abel Flores) bases his underdog mantra, not in shared experience with his audience but in his long shot to superstardom, and the contest turns him from a mild-mannered spectator into a swaggering demagogue and, despite possessing the moral high ground, Flores’ smoldering frustration does not ring as pure as Piper’s brutal honesty.
Standing in opposition to the status quo is the maker of champions, the Coach (Brad Hannigan). He alone realizes the situation’s perversity when he tells the challenger to play his life well because it’s not just his life and that competition has become the opiate of the masses. Although he agrees to train the would-be hero, the old man would rather spend his time talking to plants that tell him how human action is destroying the earth. Particularly fascinating to him is the plants’ ability to communicate through their roots, which nourish the forest and warns the whole of danger to one.
This delicate connection to nature is pitted against the hideous strength of the Bull Game, and however easy it may be to write off the play as a piece of activist theater that advocates destruction in favor of a new paradigm, it holds, within its apocalyptic critique of contemporary America, a longshot at rejuvenating a withered culture. Just as a forest drinks life-giving water through its roots, society’s collective consciousness is sustained by its cultural roots. And it is from these roots that genuine heroes appear, rejecting the materialism that calcifies all great peoples, to serve mankind in its exhaustion.