The central premise of Nancy Garcia Loza’s BULL: a love story (part of the Destinos Latin theater festival) is poignant but not unfamiliar: a convict returns home and tries to rejoin his life only to find that it has moved on without him. Add to that some truly fine acting and likable characters and you should have the recipe for a fine evening at the theatre no matter how his situation turns out. Unfortunately, neither Loza nor, to a certain extent, director Laura Alcalá Baker seems to trust the premise or the characters enough to let them tell their own story.
The main character is so instantly likable and approaches his homecoming with such superhuman equanimity and acquiescence that, from the start, it seems impossible to think that he won’t win in the end, no matter how much society stacks things against him. Bull (Eddie Martinez) may have changed physically in his decade of incarceration—we are told that bodybuilding has made him much bigger and stronger—but nothing in those ten years seems to have affected him mentally or emotionally. He emerges full of hope, looking to a future he believes will be a continuation or reclamation of life as it once was, not once even alluding to anything that occurred in prison, as if he has just flipped a switch and wiped it all out.
Of course, there is plenty of evidence that time has actually passed. His younger sister Sadie (Alexandra Casillas), who picks him up when he is released, has become a part of a motorcycle club/gang. Coke machines now charge a dollar when they used to be only a quarter. He hardly recognizes his old Lakeview neighborhood. And his daughter Emme (Jocelyn Zamudio), a toddler when he left, is now twelve years old and in seventh grade. The world does keep spinning.
One thing, though, that has not changed is the brick bungalow that he bought with his wife Sol (Kelsey Elyce Rodriguez, who bears a striking facial resemblance to Broadway’s Phillipa Soo). “Bricks last,” she told him when they first found it, a mantra that is repeated so many times that we can’t possibly miss its underlying symbolism. (To be fair, the house’s facade, as crafted by Yeaji Kim, is so solid and sturdy looking that it’s easy to believe there are entire rooms—and lives—behind it.) Bull stares longingly at the exterior when he first sees it, perhaps caught up in memories. But no one is home, and the house is dark and empty when he gets there, and perhaps that too is a symbol.
If Loza had trusted her story and these four characters enough to let it unwind naturally, this might have become a great play that either celebrated the love that Bull and Sol have that managed to survive all of the trouble his drug-dealing caused or focused on the idea that society stacks so much against ex-cons that even such a perfect scenario can’t stop recidivism. She doesn’t though, needlessly complicating things with two other actors who—though both are solid and one actually portrays three different characters—ultimately are completely unnecessary.
Sammy A. Publes is a lot of fun as Tio, an alcoholic neighbor who does home renovation for cash and who gives Bull a job. He is clearly comic relief, and Publes is very funny, but why is he here? Couldn’t Casillas, with her enjoyable, outsized portrayal of Sadie, have provided the comedy? Or maybe the lovingly antagonistic relationship between Sol and her tween daughter, who has reached the age where everything is a struggle and mom is an embarrassment? And haven’t we gotten past the point where laughing at drunkenness is a thing? (There is a late discussion of how his drinking has affected his life, but it is too late…and too little…to mitigate the rest.) About the only real need for this character (who sits in a lawn chair in the yard even in winter for some reason) is to supply Bull with scraps of wood he can eventually use to build a picnic table, but the prebuilt “scraps” are so obvious that we can’t help wondering why he doesn’t do so sooner? I mean everyone asks him why he has no table yet he leaves one in pieces in the yard?
Maybe it isn’t the yard at all. Maybe the table (and even Tio’s chair) is supposed to be inside the garage where Bull is living. That would explain some things but open up a world of other questions (starting with why Bull does not use the chair when Tio is not around, instead opting to sit on a plastic bucket). Kim, who did such a fine job on the bungalow, didn’t think the garage through enough. All we see is its facade, including the garage door, even though logically that should be facing an alley. (Yes, I know that some of them face the back yard, but it’s still confusing.) Making it more confusing is the fact that, in order to portray Bull’s spartan living arrangement inside of it, they simply open that door to reverse our view without altering the garage’s exterior siding, which for some reason is on the inside of the door as well. Truly, the set has so much realism in its design (even retractable laundry lines) that a thing like this is glaring…not to mention visually confusing.
Let’s not even get started on the fact that Bull is such a saint that he lives in what he sees as his own garage without complaint all through a Chicago winter. (“I bought a space heater,” he says at one point, but anyone who has ever seen the uninsulated interior of a garage will know how little that would help.) He does this, ostensibly, to be close to his former wife and his child in order to rebuild relationships. OK, fair, but Loza’s inclusion of a live-in boyfriend (Andrew Perez) in Sol’s life, which ought to give Bull pause, just seems another unnecessary element. The man is so milquetoast that he meekly allows his girl’s ex-husband to live in the garage—which by the way forces him to keep his car on the street all winter—with no audible complaint? Perez is fine here, though he has little to work with other than, perhaps, to be the anti-Bull. He also plays Bull and Sadie’s wayward brother G in a scene that is meatier but also has no real reason to exist. Loza has him leave Bull a pair of Air Jordans when he departs, which seems to suggest that G is the thief who has been breaking into neighborhood garages, but nothing comes from that either. When Perez’s super-laid-back parole officer finds the shoes in Bull’s possessions, nothing at all happens. (Seriously, why all of the set-up and no follow-through?)
Of course, the center of this story is Bull and his renewal of relationships with his family, but Loza is inconsistent here too. Martinez is compelling as Bull (though, as I have said, too much of a saint), but the evenness of his character feels artificial, especially when compared with the far more emotionally volatile females who surround him. Rodriguez’s Sol is a complicated creation who refuses even to answer the phone when Bull calls to let her know he is out of prison but still lets him live in her garage (despite that live-in boyfriend). She very clearly harbors tender feelings for her ex, but she has moved on with her life. His arrival is a complication she doesn’t need, and Rodriguez allows these conflicting emotions to rule her performance. Scenes where Sol seemingly turns on a dime in her reactions to Bull don’t do the actress justice: she does not need histrionics to make Sol’s feelings clear.
Sadie, too, has these moments. Mostly, she is the fun younger sister and aunt, and Casillas works hard to build that core portrayal, her huge friendly characterization shining light over everything else. But, as with Sol, Sadie also has moments where the script suddenly has her turn on Bull, as if Loza is thinking that there isn’t enough conflict in his life, forgetting that just trying to navigate life as an ex-con is challenging enough, as anyone who has ever had to check that box on an employment application can tell you. (Loza does make reference to this matter but, as with everything else, it’s pretty much glossed over.)
Zamudio does a wonderful job convincing us that she is a junior high school student. The college graduate brilliantly mimics the curious combination of introverted personal emotions and explosive public ones that defines being twelve. She is easy to believe as someone who “collects” toys from Happy Meals and is almost overwhelmingly shy with the father she hasn’t seen in years, just as she is in the scenes that call on her to lash out at him or her mother. (Less believable is her asking her motorcycle-riding aunt, who clearly doesn’t hold back on life’s pleasures, if she is a virgin…but you have to deliver the lines as written.)
Baker’s direction, perhaps sensing the underlying inconsistencies in Loza’s script, sometimes goes overboard. Her frequent use of projections is nice when it works (snow, rain) but bizarre when she has Liviu Pasare repeatedly project images of Lake Michigan…which is not exactly around the corner from the Irving Park and Ashland neighborhood in which the play takes place, as Loza makes clear in her description of the setting: “where Graceland Cemetery was always closer than the lake.” (Another symbol of things that don’t change, maybe? I don’t know; it just felt confusing to me.) Baker is also stuck with the (ever-morphing?) interior of that garage, as well as with the long, wordless scene in which Bull puts that table together (which may be the only time in history that someone has received applause for screwing together pre-built furniture…though maybe that should happen more often).
All in all, a smaller play, focusing only on the main characters, would have been a better choice. It would have provided the same (or better) character development and let the unnecessary stuff remain the detritus of scriptwriting that it should have stayed. After all, by her own acknowledgment, Loza was writing “a love story,” one between Bull and his family, yes, but also between him and that house…and with Chicago. I couldn’t help wishing that she had done more with the latter relationship instead of filling her play with extraneous small characters who ultimately add little to nothing. Still, there is excellent acting here and some enjoyable 90s/early aughts music. They don’t quite make up for what could have been, but they do add positively to what is here.
Bull: a love story is presented by Paramount Theatre and runs through Nov 20 at Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. For tickets and information, please visit paramountaurora.com or, call (630) 896-6666. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.