“Bulrusher” spins a tale of passions, secrets, and divinations

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Cyndii Johnson as Vera and Jordan Tyson as Bulrusher both looking into the same hand mirror
Bulrusher: L-R Cyndii Johnson as Vera and Jordan Tyson as Bulrusher Photo Credit T Charles Erickson
Rob Kellogg as Boy, Shyla Lerner as Madame, Jeorge Bennett Watson as Logger, Jordan Tyson as Bulrusher, Jamie Laverdiere as Schoolch dancing together on stage
Bulrusher: L-R Rob Kellogg as Boy, Shyla Lerner as Madame, Jeorge Bennett Watson as Logger, Jordan Tyson as Bulrusher, Jamie Laverdiere as Schoolch Photo Credit T Charles Erickson

The Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton has been transformed into the small town of Booneville, CA in 1955 for Eisa Davis’ lyrical Bulrusher, complete with its own flowing river. This mystical play combines elements of the Moses story with a play about passion, love, and the secrets kept to preserve the stories by which the town’s inhabitants choose to live.

Davis’ play introduces us to Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson), an 18-year-old girl who was set adrift in a basket downriver when she was born. Pulled from the reedy bulrushes along the riverbank by the swaggering Logger (Jeorge Bennett Watson) and raised by taciturn school teacher Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere), Bulrusher has been given a gift by the river: she can see images from a person’s future by touching any water they or one of their possessions have touched.

Kept at arms’ length by many of the town’s inhabitants because of her powers, most of Bulrusher’s interactions are with Logger, Schoolch, and Madame (Shyla Lefner), who runs the town’s bordello. Into her life as she enters the time of her coming of age come two rivals for her affections: her naive classmate Boy (Rob Kellogg), who declares her his girlfriend and by saying it believes it to be so; and Logger’s niece from Birmingham, AL, Vera (Cyndi Johnson), who captures Bulrusher’s imagination with her “big city” sophistication.

These six characters interact and collide with each other as Bulrusher tries to stake out her awakening life, defining herself by her own standard, through her own knowledge, intuitions, and emotions. She obsesses over finding out, not who her mother was, but why her mother would put her in a basket and send her off to the sea to drown, and why Bulrusher was not given a proper name.

Playwright Davis trusts her audience to follow the play’s action, moving as it does at the speed of normal interaction among people who have known each other for years. She also makes good use of words and phrases of Boontling, the special language of the people of Booneville. An insert in the program translates many of the words and phrases in Boontling into English, although foreknowledge of Boontling is not necessary to understand and enjoy Bulrusher.

Under the direction of Nicole A. Watson, the six fine actors in the company present a realistic yet neglected small-town in rural 1955 California. Each actor gets his or her chance to shine in dialogues and monologues, and the community they create is so seamless that the play’s revelations appear as a natural progression from what we’ve seen before.

Shyla Lerner as Madame standing with her arms crossed, Jeorge Bennett Watson as Logger leaning against a platform and his hands are in his pant pockets, Jamie Laverdiere as Schoolch is sitting in a chair reading a newspaper
Bulrusher: L-R Shyla Lerner as Madame, Jeorge Bennett Watson as Logger, Jamie Laverdiere as Schoolch Photo Credit T Charles Erickson

Booneville itself is brought to life as if by magic through the scenic designs of Lawrence E. Moten III, with the help of the vivid projections designed by Katherine Freer, Sherrice Mijgani’s lighting designs, and Kate Marvin’s sound designs. As for Valerie St. Pierre Smith’s costumes, they are clean yet well-worn; these people may be poor but they are not shabby.

Bulrusher manages to intertwine a down-to-earth coming-of-age story with the mystic wisdom of the river’s gift of clairvoyance and does it so that audiences can readily accept. It is well-written, well-acted, well-designed, and well-directed. I fully recommend making the trip to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center to see Bulrusher!

Bulrusher is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center of Princeton in its Berlind Theatre through Oct. 7, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org. NOTE: A special Pride Party catered by Under The Moon restaurants with media sponsor Out In Jersey magazine will take place on Sept. 28, 2023, including a pre-show reception; for more information, go to mccarter.org/pride.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.