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More than skin deep – ‘Ugly Lies the Bone’

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Rachel Burttram (AEA) as Jess in Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Ugly Lies the Bone." Rachel Burttram (AEA) as Jess in Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Ugly Lies the Bone." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – The title intrigues you first: from an aphorism attributed to Einstein, concluding “beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.” It is a familiar sentiment skewed sideways; a refraction, a sliver of broken mirror. A pretty rhyme for a vaguely malignant reminder, and your first indication that you are intended to witness cruelty entwined with kindness, pain with beauty.

“Ugly Lies the Bone” is still making a name for playwright Lindsey Ferrentino: appearing Off-Broadway, garnering a New York Times Critics’ Pick and eventually playing at the National Theatre of London. Its Maine premiere at Penobscot Theatre Company further emphasizes that this specific story of a single family in Titusville, Florida is universally relevant.

But “specific” should not be confused with “small.” How can one play encompass so many variations on what it means to heal? Its scope and complexity make significant demands of its artistic team and audience alike.

(Note: The Maine Edge’s editor Allen Adams is a member of the cast of this production.)

The play opens on Jess (Rachel Burttram), a soldier who has returned from her third tour after being severely burned in an IED explosion. She is a skeptical participant in a therapeutic virtual reality immersion; the mysterious voice of a health professional (Johanna-Karen Johannson) helps Jess manage her pain. Her sister Kacie (Amy Roeder) talks broccoli and dream boards in an attempt to provide a sense of normality, but with so many changes in town since Jess has been gone, going back to normal seems impossible.

For starters, her sister seems to have settled for Kelvin (Allen Adams), a man too comfortable in his own skin for his own good. Her own ex, Stevie (Brad LaBree), is married to someone else and working in a convenience store. Old businesses have closed and made way for new ones. Progress is so palpable in her virtual world, so why does she feel like she’s standing still in real life?

Unique in content, thoughtfully selected, and powerfully treated, “Ugly Lies the Bone”allows director Bari Newport to both showcase the talents of her assembled artistic team and also offer the community an opportunity to reflect.

A talkback panel after the Sunday matinee, as part of Bangor’s Maine Science Festival, revealed that the script was programmed this year not only due to the appeal of its sharp writing. Newport hoped to lift the voice of an emerging female playwright, highlight the concerns of Maine veterans and their families, connect artistic expression with the goals of the MSF (as the play features technological innovation) and collaborate with a variety of other community stakeholders. Ferrentino’s script aids PTC in demonstrating that theatre is not merely entertainment, but can compel viewers to action.

Ferrentino writes her men refreshing moments of vulnerability while the women dig in to scenes with depth and stakes that handily pass the Bechdel test. Burttram noted during the talkback it was difficult to even find many nonfiction accounts of female combat veterans’ reintegration experiences in her preparation for her role, but the script offers a lead character with believable relationships and conflicts. Burttram’s dynamic Jess elicits sympathy, but is also a multi-faceted woman of strength - Jess is no mere cipher for pity. Of particular note is Burttram’s vast range from awestruck to turbulent, and her sharp-witted treatment of Jess’ sarcastic sense of humor.

A great assembly of Bangor-area talent fills the rest of the cast. Johannson is an authoritative, soaring “Voice,” but stuns in her humble interlude as Jess and Kacie’s mother. PTC Director of Education Amy Roeder gives Kacie the quiet tension of a rubber band ready to snap and the relief of genuine joy. Most audiences will not be surprised to see LaBree in what appears to be a broadly comic turn, complete with propeller beanie cap, until his Stevie leaves no heart unbroken, audience included. Meanwhile, the audience groans at Adams’ Kelvin, an all-too-recognizable collection of quirks known by a term The Maine Edge is too polite to publish (let’s just say he has the worst attributes of a lower-rent Guy Fieri). Yet Kelvin too is spared from being merely a trope by clever writing and sensitive performance.

The contributions of the technical team merit significant consideration and praise as well. Costuming by Kevin Koski is appropriately detailed for contemporary middle-class Florida, while his makeup and prosthetics for Jess are effective. Newport revealed that the show is often performed in the round - and one could see how a more abstract approach and flexible venue would accompany the play’s flow - but PTC’s Tricia Hobbs (set) and Scout Hough (lighting) make the best of its proscenium stage with compact pieces and discrete lighting zones. Acoustic panels take up the vertical space, part ceiling, part pixelated projection screen.

Immersive moments of atmospheric sound (by designer Katie Guzzi) and projected visuals (Brave Williams) are among the most moving in the show. The integration of virtual reality programming created by Charles Carter, a digital illustrator and animator who has worked in a variety of gaming and other media contexts, informs all aspects of the performance to captivating effect and feels revolutionary.

“Ugly Lies the Bone” is an important work and a valuable statement by PTC for a variety of reasons. Patrons always do a public service by paying for local live theatre. But “Bone”goes beyond, inspiring the audience to take action to better support combat veterans – the theater has even assembled a resource guide as part of its program.

It is also an opportunity to celebrate the work of women in theatre. Hot on the heels of Frances McDormand’s inclusion rider advocacy, it is thrilling to support not only a female playwright, but a female lead, a female director and a design team with gender parity.

Sometimes, you witness art that takes bravery to execute because the risks of failure are significant. “Ugly Lies the Bone” requires a cast that thrives on nuance and a crew with a substantial bag of practical and special effects tricks. The production must also balance on a thin line between sympathy and dignity. Penobscot Theatre gathers its courage and provides a stunning result.

(“Ugly Lies the Bone” runs through Sunday, April 1 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are available at www.penobscottheatre.org, by calling 942-3333 or visiting the PTC box office. Rachel Burttram is offering a master class Saturday March 24 on acting techniques open to participants of any level of experience. And for more information about supporting combat veterans in Maine, you can visit vetscount.org/maine; you can also contact Penobscot Theatre for additional organizations.)

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