Subtitling a play about a dystopian competition where the winner is allowed to procreate and save the human race while the loser is ritualistically slid beneath a circular saw, “winner loses action figures” is either trivial or incredibly apropos. In Bull Game, Dead White Zombies’ latest immersive and interactive show, the stakes are high but the delivery is grounded. This is a show that lampoons professional sports, male posturing, and our own predictable crowd reactions while giving a sly wink.
Known for avant-garde original works—this summer’s controversial T.N.B guided audiences through a real former stash house—Dead White Zombies seems to have mellowed with its newest play. Keep in mind, however, that “mellowing” for DWZ is still “high-octane” for most other companies. Writer and director Thomas Riccio delights in pushing his audiences off balance, and that feeling begins as soon as you enter the company’s chilly warehouse in Trinity Groves.
You’re handed a questionnaire (Are you a procreator? Competitive? How competitive?) to fill out before being assigned to either Team Red or Team Blue. Four vivacious cheerleaders lead you into the cavernous performance space, where wooden benches flank either side of an intricately graffti-ed center. You might be chosen as a potential competitor in this mysterious Bull Game, but chances are they cheerleaders—now slightly menacing with their black greasepaint and aggressive perkiness—will dismiss you as weak.
For it is Conrado (Abel Flores), an unassuming young man in a hipster letterman’s jacket, who is to be your champion. He is to face last year’s imposing victor, Bruno the Bull (Chris Piper), to determine who will mate with the ethereal cheerleaders and ensure the planet’s survival. Play-by-play is given by two Earth Mother types (Lori McCarty and Ilknur Ozgur), whose soothing tones belie the severity of their message.
We watch Conrado grow from uncertain everyman to swaggering trash-talker, go with him as he learns the nonsensical rules of the Bull Game, and sympathize as he discovers unflattering parts about himself when the competitive edge takes over. Flores unfurls in the speedy 90 minutes, but his transformation is always tinged with a bit of self-horror. Piper, on the other hand, enters at full force (hysterically gyrating to 2Chainz) and refuses to dim his braggadocio even when the winds obviously sour against him.
The Coach (Brad Hennigan), a man now disgusted with and disenchanted by the game, nonetheless becomes an invested participant when Conrado begins to show promise. It’s difficult not to get involved, especially when the cheerleaders are making you stand up, dance, do the wave, and holler at the players. Just don’t forget to sometimes question your actions before being blindly swept along with the crowd.