Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Two long rows of chairs run up and down both sides of what was once the center aisle of the church nave, now the performing space. The audience is able to closely view the actors, as well as the audience members seated on the other side of the aisle. The actors tell a great deal of the story while up in the air, having climbed up the silks in ways that are, by turn, elegant, provocative, comical or lyrical, so that watching the play involves a good amount of leaning the head back to gaze up, as well as glancing side to side to see action staged either in the silks or on the floor at end of the long, narrow space. This feast of visual stimuli is served with a musical underscoring performed by four musicians whose compositions veer between Russian folk motifs and the eerie sounds of supernatural mysteries at work. Between scenes, the musicians sing, as well as play, Russian folk songs that embellish both the mood and the narrative of Bone Mother.
Bone Mother refers to the mythic Baba Yaga, depicted as living in hut set upon chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones, with a skull upon each fence post. We come to understand Baba Yaga as the guardian of the portal between life and death. Seekers of wisdom and truth, in the legends, seek her out for guidance. She may help them, usually contingent on them succeeding in completing difficult tasks she assigns to them. Then again, she is a creature of whims, and may inflict pain and suffering upon the seeker if she deems them as deserving such treatment.
Those unversed in Russian folklore may know Baba Yaga in a more recent incarnation, as a super-villain in the comic book series "Hellboy," created by Mike Mignola, and in the 2019 film base on the comic books.
The creators of Bone Mother devised a three-fold tale about Vasilisa, with each scene depicting an encounter she has with Baba Yaga over the course of her long life. The first occurs when Vasilisa is a young girl, who greets us expressing her exuberant spirit. But she is saddened as the time comes for her grandmother Babushka to leave this life for the next world. As she leaves, she instructs Vasilisa to search deep in the forest for Baba Yaga, who will help her know what to do.
The second scene takes place twelve years later, with Vasilisa now a young woman. Baba Yaga has taken to selling herbs from a hut in the village, but Vasilisa knows who she truly is. They embark back to into the forest, passing through a variety of trials and creatures on their journey, as Vasilisa continues to absorb the wisdom inherent in the elements. The third scene is set sixty years later, with Vasilisa herself now an old woman, coming to terms with how her journey through life will end. A playful cat joins up with Vasilisa in the first tale, providing both comfort and crafty challenge to the young girl and continues as her companion throughout Vasilisa's life journey.
The silks allow Vasilisa, Baba Yaga, Cat, and other creatures to gracefully become airborne, to swim beneath a river current, to climb trees or to descend from great heights. Not only are the elaborate choreographed movements up and down, or sometimes swinging to and fro enfolded within, beautiful to behold, but they underscore a sense of the ethereal that is an essential element in Bone Mother. The folk tales, flights of fancy that may seem quaint and of little relevance to 21st century sensibilities, become ensconced with meaning through the sheer power of their mode of delivery.
Different members of the cast play Vasilisa and Baba Yaga in each of the three scenes. Chasya Hill, as the child Vasilisa, exudes the joyful energy of youth and an unbridled curiosity about the meaning of the phenomena she encounters. As the adult Vasilisa, Heather Stone conveys strength and determination to sort out the riddles encircling her life, and take hold of her destiny. In the final scene, as the elder Vasilisa, Carolina Gwinn presents us with the heart of a soul made wise through experience and the sheer act of survival, who has come to understand both life and where life leads.
Each of those three actors also play Baba Yaga in different scenes. Gwinn is the first scene's Baba Yaga, with a frightful visage (thanks to a wonderfully conceived mask), but able to extend warmth and encouragement to the free spirited young Vasilisa. In the second scene, Hill's Baba Yaga is confrontational, challenging the adult Vasilisa to withstand the hardships she must encounter in order to complete her journey, no shortcuts allowed. In the final scene, Stone plays Baba Yaga as now more a peer to the elderly Vasilisa rather than a guide or an adversary.
Henry Ellen Sansone is the enigmatic cat in all three scenes, with a blend of provocation, friskiness and affection, while Megan Campbell Lagas embodies the warmth and serenity of Vasilisa's Babushka. While all five of the actors on stage are wonderfully adept in their choreographed movements through the silks, Gwinn clearly has the greatest command of the medium. It turns out that she is the only one of the five who had experience with silks before the inception of Bone Mother. The other four actors all learned the art during the course of the play's development, itself a fantastic achievement.
Co-directors Evelyn Digirolamo and Danielle Siver guide their ensemble in weaving together a coherent story from fragments of fables, with the soundscape woven into the action with precision. Bone Mother has no scenery beyond the shapes and tunnels formed from the plenteous hanging silks, which seem capable of stretching vastly in any direction while never yielding their strength. Mandi Johnson has designed fanciful costumes that are a clever hodgepodge of folkloric Russian garb and hipster attire. Bryon Gunsch's lighting design is an essential element in shifting moves and propelling the narrative forward, though I was sometimes left blinded looking at the action taking place at either far end of the playing area when the stage lights were beamed directly in my line of vision.
As a narrative, Bone Mother might benefit from some dramaturgical editing, as it feels that ideas sometimes repeat themselves, even if watching them enacted is a constant pleasure. A theme running through Bone Mother is the need to learn to live with, rather than hide from, the dark side of life. Beyond that, as is common with old world fables, the message conveyed will vary with each observer, as each one projects their own experience, beliefs and concerns for the future upon this fragile story, a kind of theatrical Rorschach test.
No matter what the individual gleans in terms of meaning, the ingenuity, grace, beauty and daring with which the story is told in Bone Mother should be enough to win anyone's heart.
Sandbox Theatre's Bone Mother runs through September 27, 2019, at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $24.00;seniors 55+ and students, $22.00; Museum of Russian Art members, $20.00. The run is currently sold out, but there will be a waiting list for each performance. For tickets and information, visit www.sandboxtheatreonline.com.
Created by Cast and Staff; Project Lead and Co-Director: Evelyn DiGirolamo; Co-Director: Danielle Siver; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Byron Gunsch; Graphic Design: Matthew Glover; Stage Manager: Isabel Patt.
Cast: Carolina Gwinn (Baba Yaga 1/Rusalki/Vasilisa 3), Chasya Hill (Vasilisa 1/Baba Yaga 2/others), Megan Campbell Lagas (Babushka 1, 3,/Rusalki/others), Henry Ellen Sansone (Cat/others), Heather Stone (Vasilisa 2/Baba Yaga 3/others). Music Composed and Performed by: Anna Johnson, Emily Kastrul, Sarah Larsson and Willow Waters;