nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 7, 2006
Bone Portraits, an ensemble-created theatre piece from Stillpoint Productions, written by Deborah Stein and directed by Lear deBessonet, takes its title from a photography fad from the 1890s. After the X-ray was discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen, it became fashionable for ladies to have these new-fangled pictures taken of their hands. These "bone portraits," though novel, were obviously also extremely hazardous, especially to the men who were operating the cameras. Bone Portraits looks at the clash between innovation and safety, telling stories of Roentgen himself and two of the Americans who exploited his invention, Thomas Edison and an X-ray operator, Clarence Dally; another character who figures peripherally in the show is the scientist Pierre Curie, who, like Dally, died of (undiagnosed) radiation poisoning.
The show takes the form of a pageant, alternating back and forth between several story lines involving the aforementioned individuals and, interwoven amongst them, songs and sketches from early American vaudeville of the period and an occasional visit to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Edison serves more or less as our host.
The theme of the piece seems to be that rampant commercialism is a bad thing. Edison admits to stealing inventions to make a buck, and the craze for making "bone portraits" costs Edison's underappreciated underling Dally his life. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that Dally didn't know that the rare bone disease that was killing him was caused by radiation (and Edison didn't either; if he exploited Dally, it was in other ways, not by poisonisg him). Pierre Curie was similarly in the dark; and in any event surely we can't equate the value of Curie's scientific research with the admittedly useless creation of novelty baubles that did poor Dally in. Yet somehow Bone Portraits seems to want us to view both Curie and Dally as un-heroic, and it wants us to be very angry indeed with Edison, the inexorable changes to our lives that his work wrought (most of them, arguably, for the better), notwithstanding.
It makes for a weird evening of revisionist history and deconstructionist art (for we're not supposed to be impressed by the happy naivete of the vaudeville bits, either). It is not, however, particularly convincing. The arguments advanced here are simplistic and repetitive: we're constantly reminded of the tragic irony of treating lethal radiation as a plaything, for example, but the value of this particular invention (e.g., its ability to help doctors heal sick people) is glossed over.
Stein and deBessonet tell us in a program note that their goal is to "investigate the impact of innovation on the lives of both the famous and the unknown." But without looking deeply at all sides of the issue, they don't come close to achieving that admirable objective.
Bone Portraits touches on some other extemporania from the 1890s, including the fad for seances and spiritualism and nifty amusements like the Ferris Wheel. But the linkage between what these ideas might represent and the show's central premise isn't particularly clear.
The show is performed by five energetic actors, Michael Crane, Gian-Murray Gianino, Adam Green, Miriam Silverman, and Jessica Wortham, most of whom play a variety of roles with vigor. The shape of the piece is self-conscious and arty; Anne Bogart's influence is enormously apparent. Director deBessonet keeps it moving nicely, but the design (minimalist set by Justin Townsend, similarly spare video by Gregory King) doesn't contribute much to the proceedings. And I had no idea why the actors essentially dismantled the set during the course of the play, leaving it to end on a bare stage illuminated by some incandescent bulbs.
There's talent in evidence in here, along with some good ideas worth exploring. But Bone Portraits doesn't succeed in accomplishing all of its aspirations. Stillpoint Productions looks like a company worth watching, and I hope they'll learn from some of the pitfalls they've encountered in attempting this very ambitious piece as they shape their next works in the future.