As Giant Bones opens, a seemingly stern king known as the Jiril (Jay Smith) begins to read a bedtime story to his unruly children. In fact, the Jiril is reading the first of four Peter S. Beagle stories that make up Giant Bones. Like the play, now through June 19, 2010 at Exit Theatre in San Francisco, the Jiril’s story is called “Giant Bones,” which is performed by a company of actors moving about in a kind of interpretive-dance pantomime, as recorded voices supply their dialogue.
In the tale, a boy is rescued from certain death at the hands of a fell beast by a benevolent giant, who then kidnaps the lad lest he reveal the secret of the community of giants that he has stumbled upon. As the boy learns patience, he also learns the customs of the giants, which includes consuming the corpses of their departed fellows. Finally, only one giant is left, the boy’s benefactor, who makes the young man promise to eat her bones when she finally passes away. He does this, and upon returning to his village after an 18-year absence, his patience is rewarded with a loving marriage and exceptionally tall children.
This is kind of cool, we think, but when does the acting begin?
A second tale quickly follows, this one based on a Beagle story called “The Magician of Karakosk.” Now the Renaissance Faire style of the players moves front and center. The queen (Jessica Rudholm), for example, is a squinty eyed conniver; the magician (Rik Lopes), whom the queen has blackmailed to learn his dark arts, is endlessly noble, a man who can communicate with the very elements yet considers himself no more than a servant of his fellow peasants. The supporting actors mug incessantly and are shamelessly obsequious before their fearsome queen, more clowns than actors. To play it straight would have been ponderous.
We are just beginning to ruminate on the gentle lessons that playwright-director Stuart Bousel has spread before us when the company begins to take its bows (I loved it when the magician presents his waiting wife with a gift of the queen’s gold crown: “I have no use for this,” she says. “I know,” he replies. “That is your gift to me.”). They turn first to us and we clap, a bit confused as we hear canned applause in the background. Then they turn their backs to us and bow to an unseen audience upstage. A curtain closes, and we are now backstage with them as they bicker about what went right and wrong in the preceding two stories we have just watched them act out. They mock their own intrusion into the play, and ironically bemoan plays with second acts that take too long to get going.