If the playwright Martin McDonagh, writer and director “In Bruges,” turned violence into a theatrical art form, then Peter Straughan is his equivalent, at least in making his audiences expect bloodshed. Where McDonagh would use a gun as a tool to propel plot, Straughan puts weapons in his characters’ hands and makes them think about the consequences of pulling the trigger. The looming threat of carnage propels “Bones,” Straughan’s dark rumination on manhood and identity, to its dramatic heights, and director Keegan Cassady ’10 makes sure to deliver on the play’s promise in a fine production from the College of William and Mary Theatre’s Second Season.
Centering on the impulsive kidnapping of one of England’s most notorious gangsters, “Bones” examines the manliness that society at large associates with being vicious and, in a broader sense, the extent to which masculinity is inherent in brutality. For Ruben, the nebbish co-owner of an adult cinema with his half-brother Benny, this state of mind is what guides the decision to stage a haphazard kidnapping of the gang boss Reggie Kray, or “Reg,” to pay off a lower-tier wise guy’s protection costs. Having lost his twin brother in what may or may not have been an accident, Ruben uses this impromptu abduction to connect with someone who turns out to be a kindred spirit, a man who has the will to get dirty jobs done. The fact that the man is played by a woman in this production is of little consequence to the power Reg holds over the characters, and is actually a clever inversion of the standard roles of the captor and captive. The traditional concepts of hostage-taking in the media are all reversed here: the torture of the prisoner, the cliche of Stockholm syndrome and other such tropes are beautifully deconstructed by Straughan, to strip bare the complexities of the play’s characters.
To single out any one member of the five-person cast would do an injustice to the strength of the ensemble, which adapts well to Straughan’s oscillation between wit and dramatic tension. Cassady’s decision to cast Mary Meyers ’10 as Reggie Kray at first appears an unnecessary device to hammer the themes of the play into the audience’s collective consciousness, but as the show develops, Meyers takes to her part with gusto, just as bloodthirsty in her portrayal as the most virile male actor could be. Jamie Ellis ’13 depicts Ruben as an English Woody Allen, mild-mannered and easy to push around, but his character evolves throughout the play into a far more complex animal than his thick-rimmed glasses would suggest. Chad Murla’s ’10 constantly beleaguered Benny is a sight to behold, running the gamut of emotions throughout the course of the show, always entertaining, always fascinating. Lex Powell ’11 and Joel White ’13, as the employees of the cinema, are impressive in their performances, adding wit and character to an already stellar cast.
Cassady’s staging has utilized nearly every square inch of the studio space in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, positioning actors in and around the audience seats, removing partitions in the room and providing only one major entrance to the stage. While novel in its execution, the added mileage when the characters move around makes for a few moments of dead air, brought on only by the fact that where one would normally be moving only a few feet to a table or chair, the distance is multiplied twofold, breaking off the timing of what should be comic lines. When the play takes a darker turn, though, the added space works in the show’s favor. The loss of a few funny moments is worth the greater dramatic tension and isolation in the long run, though there might be a middle ground where neither aspect of Straughan’s work needs to be sacrificed.
On the technical side, “Bones” is striking in its simplicity. There are few furnishings, and only one door goes in or out of the back room where Reg is kept. Most noticeable is the large screen above this door, where clips from James Cagney’s “White Heat” are played between scenes to further highlight the themes of violence and masculinity Cassady conveys in the production. Lighting is minimalist as well, with clever touches during scenes set in the all-important back room or in the movie theater itself. The starkness of the scenery adds to the power of the play, and puts the focus on the characters where it belongs.
What makes “Bones” so compelling is the forced introspection that the audience undergoes as the lights fade. The twisting of masculine traditions through Straughan’s work, and the subversion of audience expectations through Cassady’s mix of media and variety of perspective combine to create an unusual and gripping theatrical experience. Audiences may not leave “Bones” feeling comfortable, but they will hopefully have left their preconceived notions behind.
All shows are in PBK’s Studio Theater April 16 and 17 at 8 p.m.