Bone Portraits, Deborah Stein's ambitious new drama presented by Stillpoint Productions, melds gothic horror, romance, vaudeville, and contemporary theatrical experimentation with seeming effortlessness. This multidisciplinary ensemble effort is an exquisite piece of theater, condensing the years between 1893 and 1905 to show how scientific discoveries revolutionized society and set the spirit for the new century. The play's point of origin is the X-ray, discovered by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen (Michael Crane) when he unwittingly radiographed his wife's hand. The discovery so gripped the popular imagination that soon fashionable young couples began posing for X-rays, known as "bone portraits."
Thomas Edison, portrayed here as a slick, vaudevillian charlatan by Gian-Murray Gianino, capitalizes on the fad, hiring a lab assistant named Clarence Dally (Adam Green) to take the portraits. The plot follows two couples as their lives are affected by the era's scientific zeitgeist and the X-ray specifically: Clarence and his wife Josephine (Jessica Worthman), and Myrna and Edward (Miriam Silverman and Michael Craine), a seamstress and a journalist who meet at the Chicago World's Fair.
Green radiates the idealism and trustworthiness of any business's star employee, but he also brings a sensuality to his scenes with his wife. Worthman's performance makes Josephine's love for her husband palpable, even if it is also as phantasmal as the bone portraits that eventually take his life. Silverman and Craine also do an excellent job of rendering the emotional and physical connections between lovers.
Other characters include the noble Roentgen and the spry Nana, an elderly woman who at first provides a foil for the period's scientific spirit but slowly embraces it by exploring the World's Fair and the bone portrait fad. Nana is also played by Silverman, who demonstrates a notable physical versatility, while Craine slips easily and convincingly into a German accent as Roentgen.
The two love stories form the backbone of the drama, but to ignore the show's other elements would be to grossly oversimplify what Stillpoint achieves here. The cast of five, billed as co-creators and expertly directed by Lear deBessonet, demonstrates versatility and physical agility in a variety of vaudeville-inspired songs, dances, and comedic skits. To the credit of both the company and the playwright, these elements, rather than hindering the show's momentum, further develop the already-established characters and also demonstrate the effect of the X-ray's discovery upon the average American.
The production also stands out by utilizing design not as an afterthought but as an integral element. Because cameras and projectors were also newly invented during the late 19th century, the use of film and projection here adds to the feeling of scientific wonder. Film and video designer Gregory King and projection designer J. Ryan Graves transport the audience to the World's Fair, where Myrna and Edward fall in love. Ghostly projections that replicate X-rays are a visual focal point as each character experiences a bone portrait.
Scenic and lighting designer Justin Townsend, along with his associate designer, Peter Ksander, elegantly and effectively divide the stage space into performance areas that convey emotion as well as location. The show begins on a small platform in front of a curtain, in the style of vaudeville, but as the story's emotional depth is revealed, so too are areas farther upstage with the removal of hanging sheets. Stark light accentuates the white fabric, calling to mind the excitement of scientific discovery. Yet when the effects of radiation exposure ultimately destroy several lives, the deepest stage area is disclosed, and the actors are physically taken on a journey that parallels their characters' emotional travels.
Costume designer Kirche Leigh Zeile and sound designer Matt Huang also serve the production admirably. The costumes ground the production in the appropriate decade with historical detail, yet do not restrain the cast's ability from meeting the playwright's and director's physical demands. Huang's soundscape displays range: realistic sounds and lively music add ambience to the scenes at the fair, yet harsher and more discordant notes contribute to the play's harsher emotional moments.
For the most part, the production moves quickly and never sacrifices pace or clarity for the sake of experimentation. But in the middle, the use of exaggerated physical movement and a departure from dialogue that would anchor the narrative may leave some audience members feeling adrift. Still, that is remedied with the fanciful utilization of some gothic horror, as when one of the characters encounters a phantasm. An eventual return to vaudeville with a pleasantly surprising comedic musical number refocuses the story and heightens the impact of the show's conclusion.
Overall, this production succeeds on several levels. The tragic love stories move the audience emotionally, while the vaudeville sequences bring a lightness to the story's darker proceedings. Together, these elements effectively develop the show's theme about the dangers of scientific experimentation and knowledge. And Stillpoint's work highlights another message: the virtues of theater when a production exemplifies collaborative effort this well.