At Capital Fringe, Lee J. Kaplan’s ‘Bully’ should be required viewing for all schoolkids


"Bully" writer and performer Lee J. Kaplan calls to the ring those who subjected him to unrelenting bullying attacks in middle school. (Spencer Moses/Spencer Moses)

Solo shows are typically exhausting to perform, but the Capital Fringe play “Bully” must be especially taxing for writer and star Lee J. Kaplan. The actor mines his childhood to recount the relentless psychological and physical assaults he endured from his classmates. Emotionally speaking, that must take a toll. Now consider that Kaplan spends the 15 minutes before each show working out onstage, shadowboxing, doing push-ups and suffering through crunches.

So, the sweat is real. And when Kaplan seems to get a little choked up, that may well be genuine, too.

The actor reads from his childhood journal and highlights a handful of his harassers. He deals with each of them individually, reenacting the way one boy gave Kaplan a cruel nickname that stuck and how another kicked him to the ground for no reason. And that pre-show warm-up has a purpose: The actor takes each one down in an imaginary boxing match.

Kaplan has a knack for imitations, and he slips in and out of characters, embodying a prim schoolteacher, his various tormentors, and even “Saturday Night Live’s” Hans and Franz. Kaplan uses his assorted voices to sprinkle comedy throughout the performance, which makes for a welcome tonal shift.

But the heavy material is the most memorable. “Bully” is devastating and should be required viewing for all schoolkids. In some ways, the show seems ready-made for such a purpose, with projections that delineate how people can deal with bullies. But Kaplan manages the neat trick of delivering those messages without slipping into overly sentimental after-school-special territory.

At one point, Kaplan addresses his younger self, offering advice and assuring him that everything will work out just fine. If only that were possible, we could all tell the boy that one day he will exact his revenge in a most artful and effective way.

Bully

Written by and featuring Lee J. Kaplan. Directed by Padraic Lillis. 60 minutes. Through July 20 at Capital Fringe Festival. Visit www.capfringe.org.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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