As you enter the theatre at La Cité Francophone, you can smell lumber – that smell of earthy, sweet newness that’s familiar and rare at the same time. Brian Bast’s set is an abstract realisation of a bridge, a riverbank, and a living room all made out of unfinished lumber. That’s the lumber Bone Cage’s Jamie has spent all night working in the forest to help produce. And at the end of his shift, he’s wandered around to find the animals his processor has injured so he can nurse them back to health to ease the guilt he feels for the destruction caused by one of the only jobs that’s available to him in this small town in rural Nova Scotia.
This is where we find ourselves at the beginning of Catherine Banks’ Bone Cage, presented by Theatre Yes and running until October 4.
Bone Cage is the story of a group of friends and family members, mostly in their late teens to mid-twenties. They’ve grown up in a small town in Nova Scotia whose residents mostly earn their income from extracting and processing the natural resources in the area. However, the characters in Bone Cage feel the jobs they’re doing to support themselves are not only unsustainable because the end of those resources is in sight, but that doing these jobs is turning them into people they don’t recognise – people they don’t want to be. But it’s what they know, it’s what their friends are doing, and the things they use to cope with the effects of their jobs are costing so much that they can’t save enough to get out.
Bone Cage is an experience of watching people look the other way: accepting unhealthy relationships, ignoring depression, not confronting mental, sexual, and physical abuse, and trying to pretend loved ones aren’t teetering on the edge of alcoholism. But, most of all, it’s about not asking the question of what the root of all of these behaviours is. For the characters of Bone Cage, the root cause that none of the characters will voice to each other is the descent into hopelessness that comes with feeling trapped in a job that takes more from you than you get from it. A through-line of Bone Cage is the feeling of simultaneous relief and heartbreak – you know these characters will survive, but you also know that it’s just survival, that their future doesn’t hold happiness and fulfilment.
But the very act of watching Bone Cage forces us not to look the other way – to not just accept resource extraction industries and the effects they have on employees – to actually explore what those effects might be. To move beyond the thought that maybe the way we are extracting and using natural resources today isn’t just damaging to the environment and communities, but to individuals as well.
One of the biggest things that stands out in Theatre Yes’ production of Bone Cage is the cycle of suppression each of the characters goes through. Most obvious is Kevin (played by Byron Trevor Martin), who is invited to party with the ‘big boys’ in town and is attacked and subsequently terrorized by those men. Drunk, confused and injured, he comes to his friends for help and receives further abuse about how he shouldn’t have gone and warnings not to talk about what happened.
Catherine Banks’ other characters show the effects of suppressing emotions and experiences as well. – Clarence (Andy Northup), a father who never got over the death of his youngest son – is continually looked down upon by his son Jamie and daughter Chicky for using alcohol and holding onto the hope that human cloning scams offer him as a way to cope with his son’s death. There’s no offer of help, just demands to get over the loss. And then there’s Jamie (Neil Kuefler), whose asides offer insight into the guilt he feels for the environmental destruction his job causes, the frustration he feels at his lack of education and decision to drop out of high school, and the sense of entrapment he increasingly feels. When the scene shifts from those asides to his interactions with his friends and family, we see the tools he’s using to suppress all the feelings he’s told us about – alcohol, anger, violence, sarcasm, and bullying. In Jamie, we can see the beginning of his descent into the men who have attacked Kevin.
While Jamie is the character Bone Cage’s actions swirl around, each of Banks’ characters has a fully-developed story that’s different, but just as intricate as the situation that has caused Jamie’s downward spiral. Her characters are also completely, believably real. I grew up in a small town that was very dependent on the oilfield and these characters could have been my high school friends. I recognized Jamie and his self-destructive cycle, Krista and her eagerness for a wedding that will be both the most exciting and regrettable day of her life, and the advice Chicky tries to give everyone – follow your dreams before you get trapped. Nova Scotia might be a long way from Alberta (or Saskatchewan, in my case), but the situations these characters are in sure feels close to home.
It would have been very easy for Theatre Yes to have turned Bone Cage into a show that focuses on Jamie and his self-destruction as a coping mechanism, using the other characters as ancillary supports for Jamie’s story. However, Theatre Yes made Bone Cage into an ensemble production by staging some scenes with the cast members that were not part of the scene lingering in the background. For me, this emphasized the context that Bone Cage is taking place in a small community and seemed to exude the judgement of some of the townsfolk who have spent their whole careers working the same jobs the young characters feel trapped by. In other scenes, the actors were still in their characters, but actively observing the interaction – almost pleading the characters in the scene with their facial expressions and body language not to continue the downward spiral that they’re in.
One of my favourite moments of the play where the ensemble really elevated the action of the play was near the end when Neil Kuefler as Jamie was walking along the top beams of the bridge in the set. As he was walking, he slipped and the rest of the actors all gasped quietly and tensed their bodies, then as he regained his footing, they all sighed quietly and relaxed their bodies. Neither of these sounds or movements were exaggerated – for the individual actors they were subtle, but when done together, they heightened the tension of that moment, helping the audience forget that although the set itself is perhaps 10 feet above the ground, the bridge it’s representing is much higher than that.
Bone Cage features a young cast, many of whom I haven’t seen on stage, so to wrap up I want to give a few shout outs to the intricacies they played their characters with. Neil Kuefler I know from his work with Thou Art Here, but here he plays Jamie with this raw bubbling anger that is best expressed with this beautiful line in the play essentially saying that he can’t express what he’s feeling, except with this fists. Alyson Dicey I’ve also seen in Thou Art Here productions – especially as Don Joan in Thou Art Here’s Much Ado About Nothing. In Bone Cage, Alyson takes the same anger from Don Joan’s character but mixes in expressions of hopelessness and nurturing feelings that stand out in this show. Andy Northrup in the role of Clarence, the grieving father, does a great job of physically embodying the depression and grief his character is trying to cope with. This is the first time I’ve seen Byron Trevor Martin not in an improv-based role, and I loved how he played the mixture of a cocky 18-year-old and someone who is yearning for love. I hadn’t seen Emily Siobhan McCourt (Lissa), Karina Cox (Krista) or Murray Cullen (Robby) on stage before, but am looking forward to seeing them in other productions. Karina played her character Krista with exactly the right amount of desperation, trying to thrust her 17-year-old character into an adulthood that she doesn’t truly want to experience. Emily as Lissa provided this pure innocence – a portrayal of the last few years of childhood to contrast the rest of the adults in the play. And finally, Murray Cullen as Robby portrayed this sense of contentment that provided a huge contrast to the rest of the characters.
Bone Cage is deep and complex and so well-written that it’s impossible to capture the full depth of the story in a review. It’s definitely a show you really have to see to understand.
Bone Cage plays until October 4 at La Cité Francophone (8627 Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury). Tickets range from pay-what-you-can – $28. Set price tickets are available through Tix on the Square.