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Bull Spears

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

I've seen a lot of bad plays in my rounds of theatergoing, including last season's notorious flop Prymate with its now legendary moment of on-stage urination. But considering that Fovea Floods Theater's latest production Bull Spears has on-stage urination combined with the "eating" of human feces, I think it has a leg up, so to speak, on the distinction of "worst play ever." Bull Spears, a loose examination of the Wild West, is a disturbing mess of a play that mixes Brechtian and Artaudian theatrical elements with what one can only imagine is a bad trip on Ecstasy.

If one needs to point fingers, the blame has to reside with Josh Chambers, the writer, conceiver, and director of Bull Spears. Though Fovea Floods Theater aims to broaden the limits of theater through the use of film, choreography, and explosive action, Chambers seems to have forgotten that theater should have some sort of narrative thread and cannot thrive on sensory shock alone. It's not surprising that Antonin Artaud's style of theater known as the Theatre of Cruelty, with which this piece has strong affinities, is never performed these days as its shocking components ultimately made for unsatisfying theater.

Though ostensibly the play is trying to make some sort of comment on silent films and Westerns, the overall result is mystifyingly confusing and oddly enough reminded me more of The Blair Witch Project, with all of its creepiness, than of any Western I've ever seen. One might think from the show's opening scenes that all might be endurable. With faux silent film footage playing before the show begins and in between the acts, the filmed sequences vaguely recall D.W. Griffith's idealized views and images of nineteenth-century America. The show's structure is based on silent film as the actors never speak, their only words provided by visual intertitles and through the use of occasional lip-synching (an element that made little sense in this messy melange).

In the opening act, we meet residents of Bull Spears, NV, a fairly typical Wild West town with gunshooters and barmaids. But these frontier folk have names such as "Milky Hills," "Horse Dick," and "Pony Rod," names that even a second-class drag queen wouldn't be caught dead with. Are these names and the lewd descriptions that accompany the characters via the intertitles meant to be parody? Satire? Camp? Honestly, I don't know and it's hard to say if Chambers knows either.

Now I would like to say that the play at least stays on course with some sort of further exploration of its Wild West themes, but acts two and three are simply beyond comprehension. As the lusty barmaid Milky Hills (a sort of Mae West look-a-like) and the hero One Pump flee Bull Spears after a bar fight, they enter a place called Stab Mountain where characters in bad fright wigs and death-like masks mimic stabbing themselves and playing with their entrails. Disturbing? Yes. Dull and monotonous? Even more so. Backed by contemporary, electronic-sounding instrumental music, this is abstract shock theater through and through.

After our heroes, leave the stabbers behind, they end up in Knife City in act three where they meet the Spacial Lobotomies, crazies wearing strange white outfits and hats who are trapped in a wrestling ring and a bunch of people who look like they just escaped from a production of The Rocky Horror Show. Despite the fact that there is a shoot-out at the end of the act, don't ask what this has to do with the Wild West, as these mental patients, cross-dressers, and the aforementioned live urination sequence seem like they're out of some strange futuristic sci-fi drug trip.

As the actors don't have lines and the play is more of an ensemble piece, there's no one individual to really single out. Ironically, given the poor material they have to work with, the actors execute their moves and choreography well, but I couldn't help feeling embarrassed for them, particularly in the second and third acts where they are forced to carry out the most inane actions and wear the silliest of costumes.

Bull Spears is either a really good or really bad example of performance art, depending on what one's feeling about performance art is. If abstract, incoherent mess defines such a form though, then this piece takes the cake. A gentler critic might say that the play is an example of postmodern pastiche, but that would give postmodernism a bad name. All I can say is that you've been warned. If you decide to see Bull Spears and enter Knife City, you just might wish that the actors stab you in the back as that would be a whole lot less painful than having to make it through to the end of this dreadful play.

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Fovea Floods Theater
Bull Spears
Through August 29
La Tea Theater, Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street between Rivington and Delancey
Schedule and Tickets: 212.330.7639