One-person shows get a bad rap, especially in off-off-Broadway festivals. Usually they are self-indulgent career vehicles, but sometimes a script has something to say that only requires a single performer who is bursting with passion for the topic. Bully by Lee J. Kaplan is such a show. The title says it all. Bully is the true story of Lee J. Kaplan’s struggle to overcome his childhood bullying.
It works on many levels; parents can take their children to it as a learning experience, adults who were bullied as kids will find it a cathartic experience, and general theater audiences can just sit riveted during an hour of powerful acting.
Kaplan plays himself recounting his experiences as a bullied teenager, but he also plays his younger self, as well as teachers from his school, and he also assumes the roles of his childhood tormenters too. It uses excerpts taken from Kaplan’s childhood journal as the basis for its text, and this autobiographical nature makes it especially engaging to watch, and gives it an air of authenticity.
Kaplan excels at playing the tormented victim, but also is disturbingly effective in the roles of his bullies. The emotional performance is earnest and raw, drawing rage and sympathy from audiences. One-person shows are often a form of “Art Therapy” for the performer, and to an extent this seems to be true of Bully. However Kaplan’s performance is clearly intended to help his audience, rather than self-aggrandize.
Over the course of the show he outlines rules for dealing with bullies, and cites examples from his own life. Unfortunately for Kaplan many of these scenes are described as what he wished had happened during his childhood, rather than what actually did happen. This just makes it extra poignant to witness onstage.
It’s part of an off-off-Broadway theater festival, so production elements are kept simple, but Kaplan uses the basics in an extremely efficient manner. His costume consists of workout clothes because he once hoped that learning to box would be a ticket out of victimhood. Over the course of the one-hour performance he wraps his hands like a boxer, and fights unseen opponents, transforming from an insecure teen who can barely jump rope into a grown man who has learned to fight his demons both figuratively and literally.
A small screen is used to project images of his old bullies during the show. They are depicted as a band of comic book supervillains which is how Kaplan came to see them. Although the multimedia and props help tell the story it’s really Kaplan’s performance that carries the show.
Director Padraic Lillis paces it well. There are plenty of tense moments as Kaplan deals with each of his bullies, but the story continues to grow in dramatic tension right up until the final showdown.
It’s a show that can be appreciated for its artistic merits, or for the message that it sends. There are a handful of performances of it left in the Fringe Festival, and it is highly recommended. More information is available att standuptothebully.com