“Playing the Bones” by John Drago is in its premiere production at IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre. “Playing the Bones” is an intriguingly wrought play that dramatizes the self discovery of a young girl as she wrestles with a small community of living and dead souls to unravel the dark secrets of her own birth. Despite the darkness it’s a play that is optimistic about life. In “Playing the Bones,” anger, guilt and even vengeance all yield to forgiveness in the natural flow of life.
Jenny Bulla played the poor girl. Bulla’s “Girl” was a dehumanized, frightened and beaten down creature who doesn’t know where she came from and doesn’t even know her name. “Girl” is tyrannized over by Miss Marguerite, played with awsome force by Jamie Brown Acres. Miss Marguerite is a cruel manipulator. She’s a fake psychic and a thorough monster with a slightly psychotic mean streak of cruelty. “Girl” and Miss Marguerite were strongly portrayed, but the parts are a bit unrelenting. I sometimes wished that playwright Drago had worked a little more warmth or even humor into their parts.
In addition to “Girl,” Miss Marguerite preys on the broken down ex alcoholic and former miner, Mr. Priddy. Andrew Lebon had the difficult job of playing an aged and infirm man who is not very bright and even less assertive. Jason Lee appeared as the traveling man, Junie Buggy. As Junie Buggy, Lee gets to dispense a little comfort and some mysterious half pieces of advice. He also does some effective and delightfully intricate percussion playing on a pair of bones.
Along with the living characters of “Playing the Bones,” John Drago has a quartet of visions that enter the play either as a sort of Greek Chorus or as individuals. Nikolas Priest and Kelly Ann Bilski were the mysterious Man and Woman. John DeBoer was the hanged youth and Amalia Namoi Shifress was the Young Woman. The chorus declaimed their comments in verse. The identity of the individuals and the roles they played when alive were all part of the mystery surrounding girl.
The skillful direction of “Playing the Bones” was by faculty member Dale McFadden. In additon to workingwith a new play, he had a new staff as well. The scenic designer, costumer and lighting and sound-designer were all first year Master of Fine Arts candidates making their IU debuts.
Christopher Sinnott’s scenic design does a lovely job with Miss Marguerite’s front porch at one end of the Wells-Metz Theatre and Mr. Priddy’s shack at the other. In between there’s the expanse of a forest floor and a really neat little pool on one side. The backdrop behind Miss Marguerite’s porch is a lovely piece of fiber art that further offers the outline of her roof and chimney.
Dixon Reynolds’ costumes for “Playing the Bones” ranged from the simple but formal blacks and whites of the Visions to a nicely imagined and realized variety of garments for the leads. Girl appeared first in raggedy trousers and a blouse. Later she wore a simple blue patterned cotton dress. Miss Marguerite comes out on her porch in a pair of faded overalls with a blouse and an apron. Later for a visit to Mr. Priddy she was dressed out in a skirt, blouse and a variety of layers. Mr. Priddy’s shirt and especially his trousers looked as if they had years of hard wear and patching. The traveling Junie Buggy, first appeared as a man with all his possessions on his back. He wore boots, trousers, a coat, a hat and a pack that has various utensils hanging from various straps.
The lighting by CC Conn effectively accented the central characters and actions and lent mood an atmosphere. The musical selections were a nice variety from both the black and white traditions. I was happy that the sound of a gunshot during “Playing the Bones” came from the sound system, effectively echoing as a memory, instead of frightening me for the safety of my ears.
“Playing the Bones” turns out to have at its core, a mystery, but it’s a lot more than the standard whodunit. It’s a complex evolving and involving play that layer by layer peels back tissues of falsehood to reach a core of truth that can set the trapped characters, the living and the dead free.
The premiere production of John Drago’s “Playing the Bones” continues with performances at IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre through Saturday.