Photos by Jason Vail Photography
In the recent production of Harry Clarke by Burning Bones Physical Theatre, director/choreographer Frankie Mulinix made the critical choice to cast two actors -- Jaborice Knight, who is Black, and Darren O'Brien, who is White -- in David Cale's one-man play. With that choice, Mulinix simultaneously foregrounded and destabilized Cale's implicit centering of whiteness and white male experience within the play. Consequently, the version of Harry Clarke that Burning Bones brought to life during its March 31-April 4 run at Mixdeity in Grant Park mingled thematic echoes of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Six Degrees of Separation with those of The Importance of Being Earnest and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In their press release, Burning Bones provides the following synopsis of Harry Clarke's plot: "A sexually charged and darkly funny thriller, Harry Clarke tells the story of a shy midwestern man who feels more himself when adopting the persona of a cocky Londoner. Moving to a new city, he charms his way into a wealthy family’s life as the seductive and precocious Harry, whose increasingly risky and dangerous behavior threatens to undo more than his persona."
During the Friday, April 1, show Knight and O'Brien entertained the audience with compelling performances and precise timing at key moments. At the same time, Mulinix's directorial and choreographic choices pushed watchers to consider the relationship between the acting and role-playing of quotidian social situations, on the one hand, and the grandiose deception of self and community taking place onstage, on the other.
The play opened with a movement sequence that integrated the aerial silks suspended above the stage. Knight and O'Brien performed side by side, both iterating through the same series of steps in synchrony. Mulinix's choreography drew on a contemporary theater dance vocabulary. In addition to undulating torso isolations and contractions and simple rhythmic steps that got hips and shoulders swaying -- the kind of "everyday" dancing one might observe in a nightclub -- the actors leaned into extended poses that required careful control and balance. Some of these poses were performed several feet in the air as they hung secured and bound by the silks.
The dance-like prologue drew the eye to the actors' bodies, inviting the audience to attend to more than just the most obvious physical differences between them. Beginning with dance also grounded the performance in gesture, pulling dance and drama into a conceptual continuum of movement-based art. Cale's play requires an actor to construct an array of characters--male/female, old/young, straight/queer--using minimalist set and costume design. I watched with a heightened awareness of how body placement, gestural tics, and timing were as important as accents and vocal registers to O'Brien and Knight as they embodied the various dramatis personae that are only just sketched out in the snappy, sparkling dialog of Cale's script.
The British accents were not pitch perfect, but they were consistent. Both Knight and O'Brien maintained a fairly clear and uniform distinction between the posh, plummy tones signifying upper-crust society and the slangy cockney cadences that Phillip Brugglestein, the base persona and narrator of the one-man show, slips between as his Harry persona evolves and adapts.
While Knight and O'Brien often appeared on stage together, they never spoke their lines in tandem. Rather, they smoothly handed off the dialog and characterization to one another throughout, taking over for shorter and shorter intervals as the play progressed to its climax and conclusion. As different as their performances were, O'Brien's Harry merged with Knight's into a single character. The same happened with Philip and Harry's various social and romantic conquests. The actors' timing and Mulinix's blocking and direction stitched the actors' individual performances into the experience of a seamless story that generated empathy, laughter, suspense, and outright shock in turns.
At the same time, Mulinix's decision to create a dual embodiment for Harry/Phillip highlighted explicit choices and implicit assumptions about race that shape the play. At its heart, Harry Clarke is the self-serving story of a con-man, possibly even a criminal. In a racist society, the same socially-deviant or criminal behavior often carries far more risk and onerous penalties for a Black man, and people of color experience the cumulative stress of microaggressions and "code-switching" when they move into and through spaces dominated by White bodies and structured by racist ideology.
While Knight and O'Brien worked together to construct the characters in the play, Mulinix's choreography highlighted how race and racism might affect the interior subjectivity of the characters, or create higher stakes and thus greater dramatic tension in particular situations. For example, at one point near the middle of the play, Harry/Phillip bemoans the grinding repetition and existential ennui of his daily life as a service-industry worker. Following the exposition of this sentiment in dialog, Knight and O'Brien simultaneously performed distinctive movement sequences. O'Brien iterated several times through a pantomime of waking, dressing, washing, working, over-indulging, and self-medicating. Knight's sequence was more visceral, expressing pain, confusion, exhaustion through movements that resembled a body electrified and vibrating, spasming in response to unseen forces beyond one's control.
Burning Bone's Harry Clarke was unexpected and a departure from the aesthetic norms of both mainstream stage drama and contemporary theater dance. On the whole, it felt more like a thoughtful and thought-provoking critical examination or deconstruction of Harry Clarke as a text, rather than a straightforward dramatic interpretation. Nonetheless, Burning Bones delivered immersive and captivating storytelling, occasionally forging an almost confessional intimacy between actors and audience, along with the critique.