Friday, September 20, 2019

Bone Mother Sets the Tone for the Season

How do you define a witch? 

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre

Despite our burst of humid heat in the last week Minnesota is entering spooky season, which means costumes, minor toned music and pumpkin everything are about to inundate us all. I know several people who consider fall and especially Halloween to be their favorite time of year, and it seems like every year more friends are rejoicing over the return to orange and black and scary stories as soon as Labor Day passes.

But where does all this come from? Once you strip away the eerie movies and cotton cobwebs and holiday commercialization, what is left of Halloween?

Often it's tropes and mythologies that spread back hundreds or thousands of years. Take, for example, the Witch. Witch stories can be found in most cultures and invariably involve some version of an ugly old hag who negatively impacts the communities around her, usually with a curse or a dark spell. She might have a cauldron, a black cat, a pointy hat (or nose), and almost always lives in the woods.

But why does this narrative persist? What if the witch wasn't evil, or even magical, at all? What if she served some other purpose entirely?

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre
That is the question asked (and poignantly answered) in Bone Mother, the latest show from Sandbox Theatre. An original piece inspired by centuries of folk tales, Bone Mother tells an interconnected series of three stories about a girl named Vasilisa as she explores her feminine power. It begins with young Vasilisa, who seeks the "witch" Baba Yaga in the forest to learn the powers of the wilderness after Vasilisa's beloved grandmother dies. Soon bored with Baba Yaga's rudimentary chores, Vasilisa runs back to her village where she grows into a woman and becomes the town eccentric, alienated and lonely. She returns to Baba Yaga only to find that she still has more to learn from her community and must again live as an outcast, and out of the forest. It is many decades until Baba Yaga calls Vasilisa to her forest hut for one final encounter, where Vasilisa learns the true power of Baba Yaga and the magic of the wilderness. It's a beautiful story that felt distinctively feminine to me, full of cycles, renewal and strength.

In addition to the lyrical story, Bone Mother features aerial acrobatics in varying levels from all of its performers, who also trade in portrayals of each character through each iteration of the story. Carolina Gwinn is the first Baba Yaga and the final Vasilisa. She clearly had the most acrobatics training and brought just as much physicality to her facial expressions as she did to her silks work. I found her to be highly charismatic and fearless, a real presence on stage. The first Vasilisa and second Baba Yaga was played by Chasya Hill, a Liberian-American actress who recently relocated here from Birmingham, Alabama, and someone I predict is going to have a large impact on #tctheater this year. Hill has gravitas and a sonorous voice, and I couldn't take my eyes off her while she was on stage. Heather Stone plays the second Vasilisa and the final Baba Yaga. She has a less physical performance than Gwinn and Hill, but brought far more comedy to her performance. She was a welcome dose of levity in a story that can dip into the dark side, and I really appreciated what she contributed. Henry Ellen Sansone was alluring as the resident cat, with a mischievous Cheshire Cat flare that also added a touch of warmth. And Megan Campbell Lagas helps anchor the rotating cast of supporting characters, slipping in between mythical creatures and human portrayals with aplomb.

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre

One of the artistic values of Sandbox Theatre is to integrate visual design, physical performance, music and text; another is to limit consumption and minimize waste. These two tenets (of their core nine values) perfectly encapsulate the production design here. Because the performance is set in the hall of the Russian Art Museum and most of the blocking focus is on the silks, there is no set to speak of. Instead, we have a few strategically placed flood lights designed by Bryan Gunsch to set the tone for the plot; this works remarkably well, whether we are in the forest or swimming under a river. I loved Mandi Johnson's costume design, which adapted comfy athleisure wear with strategic accessories to give the actors the freedom to create highly physical performances but retain a sense of magic. And I especially appreciated the otherworldly, eerie music composed and performed by Anna Johnson, Emily Kastrul, Sarah Larsson and Willow Waters. It was the perfect accompaniment to a mystical, haunting, Russian-esque folk story, and it really coheres by the end of the show.

All images are copyright of Matthew Glover for Sandbox Theatre

Bone Mother is a truly unique performance, at once ancient and entirely original; modern but familiar; feminine and powerful. Something in it really moved me. I'm not sure if it was the effect of stripping away the trappings of elaborate sets and costumes and focusing on breathwork and the music of bodies, or the hearkening back to my favorite kind of fairy tales, or just the sense of womanly power that swept through the whole show, but I left Bone Mother feeling lightened, inspired and connected to a bigger world of spirits than when I had arrived. It's the perfect thing to watch as our seasons transition to a darker one and we prepare to sit more quietly inside ourselves. Tickets are selling very quickly, so make sure to snatch some up by clicking on this link before the whole run for Bone Mother is sold out by close on September 27.

No comments:

Post a Comment