Bones by Dael Orlandersmith – Los Angeles Theater Review
O, THEM NOT COMPLETELY DRY BONES
by Harvey Perr
published August 1, 2010
now playing in Los Angeles (Culver City) at the Kirk Douglas
through August 8
In the hands of a writer like Dael Orlandersmith, language is a minefield and words are charged with explosive
energy. Take a word like “beckon” – a word we perhaps don’t use nearly enough in common conversation – and listen to the many colorings the
word takes on in Orlandersmith’s rich exploration of its meaning. It can be cajoling; it can be suggestive. It can be downright vulgar. It
can be loose and almost funny; it can be tight and constrictive. In her new short play, Bones,
words bruise and wound and electrify. They also clarify. And they are used to hide feelings one moment, to unleash feelings the next. Since
language is still what theater, at its best, is all about, it is exciting to have this playwright and her play pass through town, albeit so
briefly, to remind us of that simple but salient fact.
Three characters – Steven and his twin sister Leah and their mother Claire – are trapped in a
hell of their own making which looks suspiciously like a hotel room but with a ceiling that is a door, slightly ajar (Takeshi Kata’s set
design is plain and economical, but effective). Like caged animals, they move in and around each other, walking on eggshells and
simultaneously smashing into the meager furnishings – a bed, a chair, a desk – of this neutral space. Their real world – hiding in the
shadows of that door hanging over their heads – seems remote and yet vivid, for these three are not really in between flights (this is an
airport hotel, we are told), but about to embark on a flight to nowhere, and are locked into
each other by an incident in their past that keeps them imprisoned because they each see the incident so differently. They often talk
directly to us (Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting eloquently bridges these transitions), though that is not always when they are revealing whom they
really are. In a room where time and memory are everywhere present, are they even there at all?
Are they, given the incident which has shaped their disparate lives, ever not with each other?
Who is telling the truth? Are they all telling the truth? Will the real truth free them? Is this hotel room one from
which there is no escape? They are, of course, provocative questions, not easily answered in an hour, and, because the incident in their
lives is not totally unfamiliar to an audience no longer shocked by anything it hears in an orderly theater setting, the answers may not be
of primary importance. But they do have a shivery chill to them that keeps one intrigued and fascinated, if not ultimately satisfied.
Orlandersmith is not only a good writer; she knows how to keep us engaged. The secret her characters are living with is finally stretched
too far, even in so short a period of time, and that merely leaves us with her characters.
The characters, however, are transfixing. They are real enough to keep us from seeing the play as
another variation on Rashomon or Sartre’s No Exit – a feeling which does somehow creep into the proceedings – and, in at least two of the three
performances, they seem rather remarkable creations caught up in a less than remarkable shared experience. Tessa Auberjonois, as
vodka-swilling intellectual Leah, does some astonishing work, particularly in those moments when she can longer deny what she has been
confronted with. And there are more shadings in Khandi Alexander’s scotch-besotted Claire than are, at first, expected; her physicality is
both sinuous and dangerous, but, in addition to her clearly dance-trained snake-like movement, there are great raw depths of feeling. Tory
Kittles finds much less in Steven than is there and he enters the games with his mother and sister a bit more gingerly than his character
Gordon Edelstein has staged the work scrupulously enough, but he has emphasized the revelations rather than the
passions behind the revelations, and there is a coolness to his approach which sometimes jibes too much with the author’s style.
Orlandersmith is so innately musical that one wonders if the jazz riffs in the background (despite Doug Webb’s expressive saxophone and
Nedra Wheeler’s subtle bass playing to which she soulfully sings along with) are really necessary. And, because she makes poetry out of
almost everything she writes, one wonders if the more overt gestures towards poetic writing here and there (particularly early on in the
passages when we are being introduced to Steven and Leah) aren’t a tad overdone. One doesn’t want to tamper with a writer’s style, and
Orlandersmith’s voice is so distinctly her own, but one sometimes fidgets, in the midst of so much that is good, when it doesn’t somehow
come together as perfectly as one wants it to.
So Bones is sometimes dry. It is also essential.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Craig Schwartz
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