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A CurtainUp Review
By Julia Furay
Bone Portraits was commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project. Set against the lively background of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, it uses many theatrical elements in its attempt to illustrate and recreate the level of obsession that X-rays brought to America. Director Lear deBessonet's staging heavily emphasizes physicality and sensuality, an imaginative but sparse set, and a cast of characters that include science notables as well as some running the gamut from the sleazy to the senile.
We are bombarded with disparate elements that include a showbizzy emcee (Thomas Edison himself) and songs and gags right out of 1890s theatre ("After the Ball" and "Goodbye, My Lady Love" feature heavily, as do period comic sketches).Because the elements don't really connect, it's a bit much. And that's a shame because the concept is promising and thoughtful, and everything reeks of creativity and imagination. What's more, the cast is dedicated and convincing even though there's not enough of the drive and clarity to make everything add up to a compelling evening of theater.
The main problem is the script, a collaboration by Deborah Stein with director deBessonet and the members of the cast.. The barely related scenes and sketches about the new X-ray technology are tied to a flimsy plot that focuses on Thomas Edison and his assistant, Clarence Dally, as well as a few of their contemporaries. Dally's obsession with the X-ray leads to radiation sickness and the first hint that new technology is more dangerous than previously suspected. But it's not enough of a story to cover up that this is basically an excuse to ruminate about technology and its fallout.
Parts of Bone Portraits are quite funny, and actually contain the thoughtfulness and depth the writers were clearly reaching for. An example of such high spots has Edison rattling off news stories as the cast jerks and twitches like an old newsreel come to life. Another standout scene shows the cast recreating the excitement of the original Ferris Wheel with the use of a few umbrella skeletons.
Unfortunately, too much of what we see just doesn't make much sense and feels unfinished, particularly when many of the characters change and morph into paranoid, buggy-eyed drones who ramble on about ghosts and visit mediums. These shortcomings make the 100-minute runtime feel longer. Still, this is a fascinating subject and period and there's enough potential and creativity evident on stage to raise high hopes for Stillpoint's next production.
Editor's Note: For other reviews of plays with science backgrounds and themes see our Science Plays Page
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