Any veteran Fringe fan knows that one-man shows can be, at best, hit or miss. Lee Kaplan’s nationally touring show, Bully, a boxing-themed look back at childhood traumas past, pulls off the tricky combination of landing many emotional hits without missing opportunities to add comic lightness to a play about a timely and otherwise heavy topic.
The premise of the show is simple: Kaplan discovers his sixth-grade journals, which chronicle years of torture at the hands of schoolyard bullies (and the enabling adults supposedly tasked with preserving his well-being). In doing so, he brings his four most aggressive abusers into the ring for a boxing match.
This literal fighting of one’s demons could easily come off as melodramatic and self-serving; instead, the audience is given insight into the life of a dynamic young man who likes to study and perform. The show is at its best when it focuses more on the young Lee than his attackers.
Audience participation is often a surefire way to fill a small space with overwhelming awkwardness, but Kaplan’s energy leaves no room for discomfort to creep in. Even when the dreaded house lights go up in the middle of the show, my fellow audience members were more than happy to oblige Kaplan in joining him in howling like a wolf. And clapping along while he sings karaoke. And operating a stopwatch while he jumps rope.
by Lee Kaplan
1021 7th Street NW, 3rd Floor
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The show is also meant to be a teaching tool for young people, and the cartoon figures used to represent Kaplan’s four main tormenters do give off a whiff of after-school special. But he also brings the themes back around to adulthood at the end, when he mentions that the fear bullies instill can follow us well into adulthood. When he entreats us to not do the bullies of the world any favors by being overly hard on ourselves, it’s a much-need reminder of how easily we can become our own worst enemies.
By its very nature, a shadowboxing match is one-sided. And as an artist and victim, it’s certainly within Kaplan purview to present his experiences as he sees fit. But there are moments I found myself longing to hear the other side of the story, as well. Far from being a bully apologist, I’m led to this curiosity by Kaplan’s own words—particularly when he recounts the tale of the boy at his summer camp who gets booed off stage, and how he says nothing for fear of becoming the next target.
When he mentions that one of his bullies was once his friend, before suddenly becoming sullen and withdrawn, I wonder what exactly was happening in that young man’s life to turn him into the kind of kid who throws worms on other people. Even in the case of bullying, no situation in life is purely black and white, and exploring the shades of gray in between may hold the key to making the words to Free To Be… You and Me, which Kaplan references, a reality.
Ultimately, Kaplan has found a way to turn his trauma into art, and for that he should be commended. Even better, he managed to turn it into an entertaining and relatable theatrical experience that rarely feels self-pitying or overly preachy.
They say living well is the best revenge—with Bully, Lee Kaplan proves that performing well can be an equally, if not more, effective strategy.