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Rogue Elephant: Of Pachyderm Puppetry and Human Folly

Ed Rampell: This one act play veers wildly off of the tried and true primrose path into uncharted territory which hasn’t been explored much on the boards since Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 Rhinoceros.
Miss Lilly Gets Boned

Kavi Ladnier and Iman Nazemzadeh

MISS LILLY GETS BONEDTheatre Review

In lesser hands, Rogue Machine Theatre’s production of Bekah Brunstetter’s Miss Lilly Gets Boned could have been a conventional crowd pleasing rom com. Instead, this one act play veers wildly off of the tried and true primrose path into uncharted territory which hasn’t been explored much on the boards since Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 Rhinoceros. (Interestingly, Rogue’s Co-Artistic Director, Guillermo Cienfuegos, helmed an unforgettable version of Ionesco’s play in 2017 at Pacific Resident Theatre, which like Rogue’s current venue is in Venice.)

This one act play veers wildly off of the tried and true primrose path into uncharted territory which hasn’t been explored much on the boards since Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 Rhinoceros.

The plot, with cute meet and all, unfolds at a mid-sized town in somewhere-ville USA, where the 35-year-old virginal title character (Larisa Oleynik, whose credits include roles on TV’s Mad Men and Hawaii Five-O and in the flick Animal Among Us, which scored Oleynik the best actress nod at the Northern Horror Film Festival - this, and the name of that movie, should tip auds off as to what’s to come) holds forth with homilies at a Baptist bible study class or Sunday school. Miss Lilly’s simplistic grasp of the Old Testament is easily contested by traumatized 12-year-old Jordan (Brady Amaya, a rising star of stage, screen and dance who has appeared on television in This Is Us and Westworld).

When the new boy in town’s father arrives to pick Jordan up, sparks instantly fly between Miss Lilly and the portentously named Dick - or Richard, as he’s called, so as not to allude to male genitalia (Iman Nazemzadeh, aka Ethan Rains, whose credits include TV’s NCIS, CSI and Judging Amy, plus the feature The 15:17 to Paris). The naïve, narrow-minded Miss Lilly is swept off her feet by Dick - uh, Richard’s - English accent, although Nazemzadeh was actually born in Iran. (It was unclear to me whether or not the character of Richard was meant to be of Anglo-Saxon heritage, although today the UK includes many citizens who trace their ancestry to Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and beyond. In any case, as the English archaeologist Richard, Nazemzadeh, excels like the rest of the cast and he delivers a penetrating performance.)

Kavi Ladnier, Harold, Justice Quinn

Kavi Ladnier, Harold, Justice Quinn

The other character in the America-set portion of Boned is Miss Lilly’s “slutty” younger sister, a lapsed Baptist and cycling fitness instructor rather impishly played by Ovation Award winner Tasha Ames. Her extensive credits include appearing opposite Reese Witherspoon in an upcoming Hulu series and in Circle X’s admirable Trevor, which has a storyline somewhat similar, thematically, to part of Boned.

However, it is the characters on the other side of the world who are startling, and provide the back story to Jordan’s trauma and his sudden appearance in America. Without giving too much away, “Harold” (Justice Quinn provides his voice) is a rogue elephant whom the scientist, doctor or trainer Vandalla Bhalla (the sultry Kavi Ladnier, whose features Boris and the Bomb and LBEM opposite Constance Wu are upcoming) is desperately trying to redeem and save. The pachyderm puppetry of Rachael Caselli, Amir Levi and Sean Cawelti are a highlight of Boned and also enhance the weirdness and otherworldly ambiance of this increasingly surreal play.

Larisa Oleynik, Iman Nazemzadeh

Larisa Oleynik, Iman Nazemzadeh

This sensibility is further amplified by Michelle Hanzelova’s graphic and projection design and Mark Royston’s shadow puppet design within a stained glass window motif, which comment upon and illustrate Brunstetter’s ever more absurdist story. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s scenic design made the Electric Lodge’s stage and seats (which were nearly sold out on opening night) unrecognizable to this frequent wayfarer to this Venetian theatrical outpost and also organically contributed to the onstage action. At times, the mise-en-scène had the stage equivalent of a movie’s split screen effect (Brunstetter also uses the cinematic technique of a flashback to tell her tale).

The intertwining of the African and American storylines is deftly done and heightens the exceptional nature of this play, which disregards and undermines those time honored Aristotelian unities of action, time and place in favor of a more absurdist sensibility. As the story progresses (probably not accidentally, along with Miss Lilly’s growing sexuality), Boned departs more and more from the literal and representational to the realm of the senses and symbolic.

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The titular “bone,” for example, is actually a double - or even a triple? - entendre with multiple meanings, even as the word “boner” (which I don’t recall being used per se in this play) has more than one definition. The absurdity of Boned extends to religious fundamentalism - which is “mental” because it stifles “fun.” The name of Richard’s son, “Jordan,” has Old Testament and Gospel implications. In her critique of bible-thumping’s anti-humping stipulations (despite all of the good book’s “begat-ing”), Brunstetter is unsparing in portraying Christian zealotry as being a form of simpleminded idiocy, if not outright lunacy.

Tasha Ames and Larisa Oleynik

Tasha Ames and Larisa Oleynik

The rampaging rogue elephants may even be a reference to the GOP, since by the 1870s, cartoonist Thomas Nast caricatured and represented Republicans as those powerful, tusked, long-eared creatures. Certainly, today’s Trumpian party is like an elephant stampede, stomping out human and constitutional rights.

(This dramedy also reminded me of one of the grimmest stories I ever reported on, about Tyke, a circus elephant who ran amok near Downtown Honolulu in the 1990s, trampling bystanders to death, who was finally felled by bullets fired by Five-O.)

Boned’s high caliber cast and crew is full of award winners, epitomized by director Robin Larsen, whose first film Sombra scored a Student Academy Award in 1998 and in 2015, she won an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Career Achievement in Direction. To be sure, Larsen adroitly oversees Boned’s Julie Taymor-like bold visualizations and well-acted ensemble. Of course, Rogue Machine Theatre is no slouch in the prize department and won the 2017 Ovation Award for Best Season, beating much larger thee-a-tuhs with presumably far greater resources.

To be sure, this West Coast premiere of Boned is in keeping with Rogue’s high artistic standards, which “seeks to be a theatre of ideas and imagination, a theatre which mirrors and examines contemporary culture, a theatre which nurtures contemporary playwrights, and a theatre whose work continually engages the community and creates a dialogue which resonates after the curtain closes,” according to the company’s lofty mission statement.

Boned possesses one of those things I value most in the arts - originality - and is indeed an exceedingly audacious, unique and imaginative production that is always entertaining, brought alive by a creative team of humans and puppets. I was unable to guess what direction the story and characters were moving to. But Boned arguably is missing another of the essential ingredients for great art - an uplifting perspective. Brunstetter’s bleak point of view may express and comment upon the human condition - but holds little, if any hope for we mere mortals. The playwright’s musings on human - and animal - nature are pretty somber. Ironically, it is the child Jordan who verbalizes this despair best early on in this play performed without an intermission.

Of course, this is in line with existentialist and other types of dramas and comedies. And despite this omission Boned is must-see, essential theatergoing that is for adventurous ticket buyers who enjoy being challenged, amazed and - well - aren’t boneheads. But leave the kiddies at home as this highly recommended work of art deals with serious - and absurd - adult subject matter.

bogue Machine Theatre’s production of Miss Lilly Gets Boned plays Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 28 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice, CA 90291. (Note: The Saturday 9/28 performances will be a 2:00 p.m. matinee, with no performance on Sunday, 9/29.) For ticket info: (855)585-5185 or https://www.roguemachinetheatre.net/.

ed rampell

To see Kavi Ladnier in Boris and the Bomb (which Ms. Ladnier also produced) on Sept. 27 at NoHo 7 go to: https://www.laemmle.com/film/boris-and-bomb .

L.A.-based film historian/criticEd Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ ). Rampell is moderating the “Enter Stage Left: Theater, Film and TV for a Better World” panel at the Left Coast Forum (see: https://leftcoastforum.org/enter-stage-left/).