UTM grads take the stage in Hart House Theatre’s Bone Cage

Family dysfunction gets an organic twist in Hart House’s first production of the season

Dirge-like organ music fills the cavernous Hart House Theatre as the audience slowly trickles in and searches for their seats. On the stage, a gnarled mass of tree branches reaches partway up to the ceiling, creating a dramatically silhouetted backdrop for the tree stumps and other modest wooden structures that fill the set. Hart House Theatre’s first production of the 2013/14 season, Bone Cage, is about to begin.

Though the play’s joyful opening dance number may lead you to think otherwise, Bone Cage is a heavy and introspective character study. Characters that initially seem one-dimensional prove far more difficult to pin down, and by the end, the complex web of relationships and betrayals feels just as tangled as the nest-like wooden structure that dominates the stage for the entirety of the show.

Catherine Banks’ script paints a searing landscape of small-town Nova Scotia. Our protagonist, Jamie (Nathan Bitton), works in the clear-cutting business but hates the destructive work and longs to escape to the west coast. He lives with his sharp-tongued sister Chicky (Samantha Coyle) and his unemployed father Clarence (Layne Coleman), who spends his days drinking and mourning the death of his other son. Jamie is engaged to Krista (Lindsey Middleton), a bubbly high school senior whose own brother, Kevin (Kyle Purcell), carries a torch for Chicky. To say that relationships get messy in Bone Cage would certainly be an understatement.

Bone Cage is very much about coming to terms with (or, in some cases, avoiding entirely) the consequences of one’s own decisions. But it also explores the way that other people can mould our future for us, whether or not we want them to. Every character’s path has been rocked by the actions of another, and as we see over the course of the play, it’s usually not for the better.

Each performance offers a wonderful kind of inhabited ambiguity. There isn’t a clear character arc or any real redemption for anybody in this play, but the emotional impact of Bone Cage comes from watching these characters simply bump into each other.

For example, as Chicky, Coyle offers a sturdy, commanding stage presence and beautifully conveys her character’s role as a substitute mother for both her brother and her father with a mix of harshness and protective tendencies. But as we learn about the details of her affair with a married man, Chicky’s defences begin to crumble, and Coyle ensures that the audience sympathizes with her character’s desire to escape it all.

Meanwhile, Purcell plays Kevin with a wounded volatility right from the start, making it all the more painful to watch Kevin’s explosive tendencies boil over later on.

Bitton and Middleton are both graduates of the UTM and Sheridan College theatre and drama studies program and are familiar faces to those who have frequented Theatre Erindale’s productions in the past few years. Here, as Jamie and Krista, they are entirely convincing as a misguided couple headed for the altar. Their moments of banter feel easy and fun, providing some of the lighter moments in this often darkly comedic play. But with Krista being a naive and petulant girl and Jamie being a frustrated young man with a scary temper, it’s pretty clear that their impending marriage is doomed from the start. However, both actors refuse to tip their hand by playing up the melodrama and instead commit to every facet of Jamie and Krista’s complicated relationship, no matter how innocuous or foreboding, leaving the audience guessing where their onstage romance will go next.

Director Matt White (himself a UTM grad and an instructor in the program) brings admirable precision to Bone Cage. Even the simplest touch, like having the ushers hand each member of the audience a scroll tied with a fuchsia ribbon, connected to a minor plot element, along with their theatre program, adds resonance to the production. Every piece fits into the whole, making for a riveting couple of hours spent with a fascinating cast, as well as a visually compelling performance. The set in particular sets Bone Cage apart from other “human interest” plays of its kind. Set designer Elizabeth Kantor has created a dynamic multilevel set that believably transitions into a variety of settings. For example, in the indoor scenes, it’s the little details, like a light source coming from inside the fridge (which is also constructed from logs) as Jamie grabs another beer, that cleverly remind us of the setting.

A couple of moments in the production ring slightly untrue and could have flowed more smoothly, but they only stand out because of how authentic everything else here feels. The raw performances and the sparse setting make Hart House Theatre’s production of Bone Cage a worthy interpretation of an outstanding piece of Canadian theatre.

Bone Cage runs at Hart House Theatre until October 5. For more information, visit harthouse.ca.

There isn’t a clear character arc or any real redemption for anybody in this play, but the emotional impact of Bone Cage comes from watching these characters simply bump into each other.

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