There’s a lot to savor in Shotgun Players’ production of Bulrusher, a 2007 Pulitzer finalist by Brooklyn-based Berkeley native Eisa Davis about a girl found floating down the river as a baby, who knows nothing about her parents except that they didn’t want her, and that at least one of them was black.
The first thing you notice right away: Lisa Clark’s set is simply stunning, capturing a reedy, tree-shaded marsh and the bare essentials of two houses (one of them a cathouse).
Bulrusher is set in Boonville, Calif., in 1955, and Davis makes liberal use of the peculiar local Boontling dialect. An extensive glossary is provided in the program, but the cast doesn’t quite make the language sound natural.
Louise Chegwidden has a stubbornly mercenary air as local madam Madame, especially effective when her armor begins to crack. D. Anthony Harper exudes easygoing charm as an out-of-work logger always wooing Madame while remaining her best client. Vera, the African-American girl fresh off the bus from Birmingham who awakens some troubling racial consciousness (among other things) in Bulrusher, has a terrifically down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality, at least as played by understudy Britney Frazier on the night I attended.
Cole Smith is all manic, giggling energy as Bulrusher’s backwoods suitor Boy, like a dog chasing his own tail. Terry Lamb is somewhat stiff as her mentor Schoolch, a teacher who seldom speaks. The sense he gives of always almost saying something is amusing but undermines the character’s silence.
Co-directors Margo Hall and Ellen Sebastian Chang’s staging is well paced and has some marvelous touches, especially the way they use a waterfall to show Bulrusher’s connection with the river, but it’s hampered by the wooden performance of Kirya Traber as Bulrusher herself. Traber lingers lovingly on poetic monologues, making them sound more flowery than they are, and rushes through dialogue so that it’s hard to understand. Bulrusher may be a mystic outsider, but the blank stare Traber points anywhere but where the action is just makes her seem vacant.
The real strength in the play, captured well in the production, is the connection between the characters, which develops in some unexpected ways but ultimately seems so natural. When a few of the connections start to be explained in the manner of more conventionally plot-driven plays, it comes as a bit off a shock simply because it may not have occurred to you to wonder about them.