If you’re planning to see Sandbox Theatre’s “Bone Mother,” you might want to bring along something you don’t usually need at plays: sunglasses.
“Bone Mother” is performed in an unorthodox setting, the Museum of Russian Art. That means Sandbox has had to bring in some things to make it more theater-like, one of which is stanchions of lights, many of which may be shining directly into your eyes at various points in the play. The performers’ faces were completely obscured for me sometimes, but I’d argue the trade-off is worthwhile because the museum is such a great fit, both thematically (it’s based on Slavic folk tales) and spatially (its cathedral ceilings define a tall, narrow “stage” that the company-created piece uses every inch of).
The show is performed on and around three 20-foot columns of shiny, kelly green fabric. They look like trees, which is appropriate because a forest figures prominently in the three sections of “Bone Mother.” But over the course of the show, the fabric also becomes a cupboard, an herb garden, a bed and a kind of trapeze. The columns are visually arresting, but they also expand the storytelling possibilities for Sandbox because, for instance, an actor/aerialist can climb high atop one of them to establish domination over an actor on the ground, or two actors can set a playful tone by using them as swings.
Similarly, the actors are not bound by text. The fabric gives them the freedom to escape their “stage,” to use movement and action to tell the story. I’m thinking of when Henry Ellen Sansone, playing a cat, twists himself up in the fabric only to do an upside-down death drop on another performer, a movement that captures how some cats like to freak you out just because they can. Heather Stone seems to have an almost acrobatic command of her deep, expressive voice, which she uses to great effect. And it’s all backed by a four-woman band whose synthesizer-based sound is a bit like a blend of folk songs with the atmospheric music Vangelis composed for “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
The story line of “Bone Mother” is elusive, partly because the actors alternate playing various roles, so it’s (deliberately) tough to get a handle on them, and partly because they are mysterious, as fairy tales often are. There’s something here about a peculiar witch and embracing the darkness within us. Or, as Sansone says near the end, “Nurture your strangeness. It is a gift.”
Sandbox delivers on that gift. Led, perhaps, by those huge swatches of green fabric, they let their freak flags fly.