‘dry bones rising’ at Venus Theatre Company

In her program note, director (and founder of Venus Theatre Company) Deborah Randall has this to say about her company’s newest play, dry bones rising: “The style… could be described as ee cummings meeting Mary Shelley at a mutual friend’s bat mitzvah.” This cryptic description makes more sense in the light of the following facts: 1) This is the first full length production by Harvard trained playwright Cecelia Raker, as was Frankenstein the first published work by Mary Shelley 2) Like Frankenstein, dry bones rising includes the creation of a man who turns out to be more than its creators bargained for 3) Cecelia Raker is an observant Jew who overlays her play with Judaic traditions and folklore, and 4) like a Cummings poem, Raker’s language moves freely through time and space, unhindered by paragraph or punctuation. It is a theatrical gesture, an “epic poem” to use Randall’s phrase, an exploration that wears narrative convention like a loose garment, not allowing it to muck up the play with false structure.

Allison Turkel and Ann Fraistat. Photo by Curtis Jordan.
Allison Turkel and Ann Fraistat. Photo by Curtis Jordan.

In short, dry bones rising is the kind of innovative and thought-provoking work audiences have come to expect from Venus Theatre Company, which with every show further cements its status as one of the last true avante-garde theatre companies in the DC area. Although there are moments when the loops and about-faces of dry bones rising become a bit eye-glazing, the show is still very much worth seeing, not least because of its relentless originality.

Although the space inside the Venus Play Shack is tiny, with a house that consists of a whopping 18 seats, the scenic design by Amy Belschner-Rhodes evokes a vast desert landscape. The show is indeed set inside a very muddy post apocalyptic world (the location denoted in the script is literally “Mud”). The space is duly saturated with earthen tones, the lights (also designed by Ms. Belschner-Rhodes) alternating between ochres and greens. The poetry of the language, concerned again and again with themes related to earth, seems to melt into the scnery. Graves, building foundations, dirt, and the animated Mudman itself all invoke the importance of the soil. At the same time, the scenery mostly consists of wooden platforms draped with bedsheets, evoking a child’s game of make believe – a brilliant choice, given the importance of children and imagination in the overall play.

Rounding out the design is Neil McFadden’s omnipresent sound design, which ranges from undertones of wind to thrash metal to Yo Yo Ma, and which adds to the impact of the show incalculably.

It is difficult to describe the ins and outs of dry bones rising, but it revolves around the relationship between two children, referred to only as Her and Him, played by Ann Fraistat and Erin Hanratty, respectively. Despondent at the total annihilation of which they are the only apparent survivors, the boy and girl have a fundamental difference of opinion: He wants to leave, and She wants to stay.

The girl, played with sometimes terrifying power by Ann Fraistat, generally overpowers the Boy (played with tenderness and nuance by Erin Hanratty) and, what’s more, convinces him to share with her the secret of animating a “Mudman,” a creature very close to the Golem found in Jewish folklore: an inanimate creature who generally causes death and destruction, extending eventually to its own creator. But the headstrong Girl’s desire for company and aid overpowers the Boy’s doubts, and indeed sculpts a Mudman.

The creature (played with extraordinary creativity and specificity by Allison Turkel) is sometimes mystical, sometimes horrifying, and may hold the key to either the redemption or destruction of the last remaining children on Earth. Turkel sports a jumpsuit painted to match the surrounding mud, and her face is covered with a beautiful Kabuki-like mask, created by Tara Cariaso.

Erin Lee Hanratty and Allison Turkel. Photo by Curtis Jordan.
Erin Lee Hanratty and Allison Turkel. Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Together with a life size dummy crafted with great detail by Vanessa Q. Levesque, it is apt to characterize dry bones rising as a deeply theatrical show, in the sense that it makes ample use of conventions available only to the theatre. It is much to Director Deborah Randall’s credit that the show makes up for in visual impact what the text can sometimes lack in terms of dynamic momentum.

Like the pedestrian mud, brought to life by the children’s desperate imagination, dry bones rising itself seems to be animated by forces bigger than actors and set and sound. It is bigger than the sum of its mud. And I, for one, had no problem getting dirty.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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dry bones rising plays through June 14, 2015 at Venus Theatre Company – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS8.gif