A River Going Nowhere: “Bulrusher”

The Navarro River, 28 miles long, flows from northern California’s redwood mountains to the Pacific.  Early on, it passes  the farming town of Boonville.  A century ago, the townsfolk developed their own Cockney-like slang, known as “Boontling” (“Boon” + “lingo”, with a “t” for good measure).

The river is a major figure — almost a character — in Bulrusher, now onstage at the handsome Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.  “Boontling” makes repeated appearances, too.

The river has somewhere to go, and it gets there.   The dialect was made to communicate, and presumably (among the townspeople, anyway) it does so.  Bulrusher has trouble doing either.

Bianca LeMaire, Chauntae Pink

Bianca Lemaire, Chauntae Pink

Not for lack of trying.

The stage design is striking — a wall made entirely of wooden pallets (or facsimiles thereof), some of them swinging open for windows and doors, others rotating to reveal a counter and shelving.  Also striking are the projections — rippling to evoke the river and, at the end, the sea it flows into.  Both are the creations of Hana S. Kim.

The actors work hard and well.  As the title character (named for being found in a basket among the reeds at the river’s edge), Bianca Lemaire projects energy, coy cleverness and innocence from the start, and sustains them through a taxing performance.  Joshua Wolf Coleman, after a slow start, finds intriguing emotional complexity and thoughtfulness in Logger, a black former lumber mill worker who’s a regular at Boonville’s one bordello.

As the bordello’s proprietress, Heidi James is consistently forceful and wry, yet allows emotion to seep through at moments.  And Patrick Cragin relentlessly and blithely pushes the callow envelope of Boy, the youthful troubador who woos Bulrusher.

Do you sense a pattern?  Yes, the actors are all working uphill, trying to make their roles more than what’s written.

Still, it’s impossible to gauge the talents of Warren Davis, playing the teacher who took Bulrusher in and raised her; or of Chauntae Pink as Vera, the Alabama girl who arrives, young black and gifted with a fetus, and falls in love with Bulrusher.  Their characters simply are given nowhere to grow, and precious little to do.

That fault must be laid at the feet of novice playwright Eisa Davis.

She is understandably fascinated by “Boontling,” and the proud, isolated town where it grew. (So was I, visiting the area most summers of my youth.)

Alas, she is — or was, in 2006 — also enchanted by long poetic monologues.  (Note that I said “poetic,” not “dramatic.”)  In the opening speech, and at key moments throughout, we drown in a sudden flood of inflated diction and arch coinage, making us thirst for language we can understand.

Instead, in the middle of some plain English, we get “Boontling” — cute, but untranslated and incomprehensible.  And it’s too dark to consult the 84-item glossary printed in the program.

Davis also has — or had — little curiosity about the town she fell in love with.  It was indeed a mill town, shrunken by the mill’s closing.

But it was far from the haven of racial harmony she paints.  When Boonville had a population, it was clearly segregated, at work and at home.  And when it had civic brawls, they broke along racial lines.  (Davis does rightly note that the native tribes got the worst of it.) Nor was prostitution so widely admired that the local schoolmaster could spend half his life at the whorehouse and remain employed.

Finally, Davis has — or had — little understanding of what makes a dramatic story.  Her characters are like those in a commedia dell’arte or a sitcom.  They’re identified by and, as things play out, wholly limited to one or two stock actions and emotions apiece.

Worse, they have no choices to make, no life-defining actions to take.  At best, they refrain — from marrying, from killing, from leaving town.  Even Bulrusher’s psychic abilities, a key element of the tale, exert no more than a feeble impact on events.  (The pregnant Vera does face some life-altering decisions, but Davis avoids them by shipping her back to Alabama.)

No actors, however energetic, can fix this.

Nor can any director, however inventive.  And to be honest, Nataki Garrett’s direction is not inventive.  She stages a repetitive sequence of static moments (no doubt what the script offers her).  And again and again, often in the middle of an intimate dialog, she’ll send an actor off on a long, curving stroll around the stage for no reason.

It’s hard to see why Bulrusher was ever considered for a Pulitzer (it lost to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole in 2007).  It’s hard to see why it keeps getting produced, or why two fine small companies joined forces to stage it here.  Perhaps because it yearns to deal with race — our culture’s besetting tragedy — in a fresh way, and because it yearns to be poetic.

But yearning is a long, long way from achieving.  As every dream-driven artist in LA can tell you.

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Bulrusher, by Eisa Davis, directed by Nataki Garrett.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Enemble, at the Skylight Theatre,  1816-1/2 N. Vermont St.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 3:00pm,
through Sept. 28.

Tickets: <www.skylighttheatrecompany.com>