Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
A story about the 1895 discovery of the X-ray and its introduction at a late 19th Century World's Fair may seem like a real sideshow idea for a play, and Deborah Stein has made “Bone Portraits” into exactly that. From our introduction by Thomas Edison, inventor, carnival barker, visionary and flimflam man, it's clear that we are about to about see history as vaudeville; a little drama, some song and dance, cheesy laughter and sentimental romance, all for a modest ticket price and right this way.
Meghan Arnette hits exactly the right tone for this show and directs an excellent cast to a continually entertaining, intriguing, well-balanced show that flies through its 75 minute length. The modest stage at Live Girls, with an inner stage behind a cheap draw-curtain is exactly right; it keeps us up close to the action and allows the performers just the right scale for their performance. The script uses the obvious metaphor of X-ray as a device to see inside people, to see who they really are, but is never heavy-handed or pretentious. We see the real character of these people not through pictures of their bones, but by what they do, the technology of drama.
Roy Stanton makes Edison powerful and just a little crazy, an entrepreneur who exploits the work of others because it is necessary to maintain his own stature, and to bring his “advancement” to the masses. Stanton has terrific presence and creates the centrifugal center for the rest of this play to revolve around. Once he purloins the accidental discovery of the hapless and hopelessly inept Wilhelm Roentgen it's a short hop to his laboratory in Menlo Park. There, he explores the new invention with the help of his devoted assistant, Clarence Dally. Adam Davis gives Dally a simple decency and modest curiosity that makes him sympathetic, and worthy of his lovely wife, Josephine.
We first meet her with her friend, Nana, at the World's Fair, magically lit by electric lights and displaying a world of the future that is transporting. LaChrista Borgers is wonderfully successful at making Josephine's discovery of the incandescent world feel extraordinary and seductive. She is also elegant and demure, just right for a Victorian lady enduring the invasion of the Twentieth Century into her drawing room. Those qualities also give her the class and dimension to portray Madame Curie, after she has been widowed by this unknown phenomena of radiation that comes with the new kind of light. Josephine will also lose her husband to that radiation attending Edison's ambition and his own curiosity, and her loss adds dimension to the unseen cost of progress.
As Nana and Roentgen's wife, Berta, Shawnmarie Stanton somehow creates a woman just a generation behind, and does it without exaggeration or pretense. Again, it is a very restrained characterization, but not without a certain awareness that the world is going to change whether she likes it or not. In the vaudeville skits she is energetic and endearing, show-bizzy in just the right way.
Nobody goes as far into the show-bizzy as Jason Franklin, who in addition to doing Roentgen, Bert and a two-bit Medium, hams up his vaudeville bits in truly hilarious ways. His rendering of a falsetto “I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now” was as funny as anything I've seen in a long time. Again, I think the director gets credit for keeping all this nonsense from getting out of hand, pushing everything right to the outside limit of razzmatazz, but not beyond. Of course, what all this limelight shtick does is to reinforce the play's notion that this curiosity, this silly little invention so seemingly unimportant, such a trivial novelty, would not only reveal the world inside the body, but would also change the world outside for everyone who encounters it.
“Bone Portraits” is a fascinating, very entertaining and smart piece of playwriting and Live Girls has given it an excellent production. This is one sideshow that doesn't disappoint or deceive, but delivers a revealing view of one small element of history in a personal, engaging way. This invention works.