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.
This new narrative, which is interrupted one more time in act one by a third Beagle story before dominating act two, is based on Beagle's "The Tragical Historie of the Jiril's Players." Now we understand where all the melodrama and big gestures were coming from -- that's what the Jiril's Players do, that's their shtick.
I suppose act two could be its own play, the plot of which I won't give away in the hope you'll see it for yourself, but it does benefit from the context provided in act one, although 75 minutes is probably a good deal more context than most audiences need.
Still, the time gave me a chance to get to know these marvelous actors, to look forward to them in each new role. For example, Katrina Bushnell is terrific as the player named Kydra as well as the Jiril's dimwitted son, Davao. And I enjoyed Mikka Bonel's work as Tai-Sharm alongside Lopes, the King she must marry, and Paul Rodrigues, the Thief who has come to steal her, and her heart, away.
Mostly, though, I grew to appreciate the interaction between the company's leader, Dardis (Lopes), and his leading lady, Lisonje (Rudholm). Their relationship, which seemed so black and white when we first met the company, evolved slowly, subtly. All that was required to see it unfold was a bit of patience.
Giant Bones runs through June 19, 2010 at Exit Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit giantbonesplay.com.