If there is one resonant, defining aspect of Bone Cage for me, it’s a relentless atmosphere of damp and prickly discomfort. Catherine Banks’ play traps us in rural Nova Scotia with seven characters who want desperately to rise above their circumstances yet only succeed in hurting each other. A doomed logging industry looms large around these broken people. It’s depressing stuff and this production, presented by One Four One Collective in association with The Assembly Theatre, captures the story’s pervasive ennui.
Jamie (Daniel Reale) wants to move to BC to train as a forestry pilot, aspiring towards better paying, less arduous work. He’s engaged to Krista (Jessi Elgood) whose unassuming dreams of married bliss demand little more than a modest trailer home. Jamie’s sister, Chicky (Kaitlin Race), with her own ample baggage, disapproves of this pairing yet shares his frustrations with their lot in life.
Their father, Clarence (Jimi Shlag), still reeling from the death of his youngest son, is drunk and delusional, wasting money and emotional energy on a scam promising a cloning miracle. After a violent, humiliating prank pulled on him by some local men, Jessie’s friend Kevin (Cooper Bilton), seeks revenge on his bullies and validation in the form of physical affection from Lissa (Karen Scora), an adolescent girl with a vaguely hinted at developmental disability. Her protective brother, Robby (Atlin Hofer), seems similarly afflicted and ostracized.
And I wanted to care about them all more than I did.
Alcohol is a ubiquitous coping mechanism for this community where desperation, crass vitriol and domestic dysfunction is rampant. I am drawn to stories with acutely abject characters, but I couldn’t connect to anyone portrayed here. The performances are earnest enough, if sometimes stilted. I don’t find Banks’ writing particularly compelling. It can be quite coarse and convincing, but it shifts clumsily between brutal fidelity and dark poeticism in a way that diminishes both.
Cass Van Wyck’s highly textural production is reaching for an aesthetic that blends earthy realism with dreamy, wistful flights of fancy. There are a few arresting moments where the elements align and the vibes are strong, but it rarely transcends the limitations of the space nor the unpleasantness of the characters.
JB Nelles’ set is persuasively rustic. A rickety boardwalk looks out over a gritty plain of tree stumps and detritus that serves as both interior and exterior locations. My favourite detail is a lounge chair covered in dangling, mossy protrusions. The back wall, depicting cross-sections of timber, feels off; the crude, hand-drawn sketches are incongruous with the more realistic surfaces.
The smallness of the venue allows for some intense intimacy, though there are times when the actors seem too confined. Impulsive, erratic gestures feel stilted and cramped. This could work thematically, echoing the way the characters keep stumbling against oppressive circumstances, but it feels more awkward than deliberate.
There is so much I appreciate about this conceptually. On paper, it ticks off all of my boxes; in execution, though, this fell flat for me. It does feature some committed talent and a truly visceral despondency that lingers.