Los Angeles is in ruins. Police helicopters hover over the city. The homeless are everywhere.
No, Timothy McNeil’s latest play and Hollywood Fringe Festival offering, The Boneyard & Talisman, isn’t set in the present, but rather in a post-apocalyptic near future. This is not your typical last-human-on-planet-mutated-zombies-coming-to-get-you-Snake-Plissken-saves-the-day post-apcalypse, however. In fact, few details are given about how we got to this future. Instead, the setting is actually a MacGuffin that provides McNeil with a nice blank canvas on which to work.
The 60 minute play is billed as a two-act but, in reality, The Boneyard & Talisman is two one-acts (“The Boneyard” and “Talisman”) set in a common time and with common themes but with two completely different sets of characters. The work is akin to a European film: mostly character-, rather than plot-, driven and the play is made compelling from how the new reality impacts the psyches of the very real characters inhabiting it.
Director David Fofi, who is a frequent collaborator with writer McNeil, has done some stunning work here with not only his actors, but also the overall tone of the piece. The nearly bare stage necessitated by Fringe restrictions also works effectively to create the desolate landscape; most of the empty stage is “dressed” via lighting alone. The lights do not go down on this play, the theater is murkily lit as we enter, and stays that way throughout the show.
Indeed, “The Boneyard” opens with a young homeless couple, Corrine and Albert (Kate Huffman and Joseph Tomasini, who are also the show’s producers), bringing in their own light to allow them (and us) to navigate the graveyard through which they are roaming. Albert has dragged Corrine here, in the middle of the night, to dig up his father’s grave (and you’ll believe that Tomasini is really shoveling dirt throughout the scene). But again, this macabre set-up is a MacGuffin with the real action created by the strained relationship between the lovers. Albert literally digs into the past in an attempt to heal his soul in the present while Corrine prefers a self-medicated route. Opening the father’s coffin further brings their differences into sharp relief : Corrine can only see the value of the physical things inside; Albert is seeking something “valuable” that is decidedly more abstract.
After a set-changing interlude that keeps us immersed in the reality of the show, “Talisman” opens with ex-Wall Street power player, Larry (played with a slippery aplomb by writer Timothy McNeil), scavenging dead soldiers. Despite his current situation as a homeless forager, Larry’s babbling logic reveals he’s retained an inner sense of greedy entitlement, perhaps a result of being a parasite even in his previous life. Enter the Harvard-educated, drifter Natalie (Huffman again), interrupting his work. While Larry carries with him the precious treasure of canned goods, including the drinkable water in which the vegetables are packed, Natalie only possesses a talisman – an oversized emerald – that is seemingly useless in this new world. Seemingly useless only: a great portion of this act is, again, concerned with what we decide to value and how we determine its valuation.
The essential glue holding the two pieces of The Boneyard & Talisman together is the performance by last year’s LA Weekly Theater Award winner, Kate Huffman. While it might seem a producer’s prerogative to appear in both acts, it’s clearly an artistic choice and one that works extremely well. Corrine (the doping, ne’er-do-well) and Natalie (the privileged, Daddy’s girl) are archetypes that bracket the whole of humanity and Huffman’s continued stage presence reminds us of this. Her interpretations of both the pragmatic Corrine and the idealistic Natalie are equal parts quirky, playful, loopy, and reflective while always remaining grounded in an extreme intelligence and awareness. Huffman draws sharp distinctions between the two characters via her physicality: as the rough Corrine, she casually tosses aside a candy wrapper while musing how European cities are kept so clean, and, as the delicate Natalie, she carries on a conversation while performing precise ballet moves. McNeil’s themes across The Boneyard & Talisman are significantly reinforced when both the opposing personalities of Corrine and Natalie, with their differing notions of value, are performed by the same actress and Huffman pulls off this challenge with spectacular results.
The Elephant Theatre Company has used its home-field advantage to stage a show during the Hollywood Fringe Festival that is so professional it could reasonably be considered a tryout for an offering later in their regular season. If that happens, I’ll be extremely excited to see the moody, brooding, and complex The Boneyard & Talisman a second time. In the meantime, this is one current production that should be on all Fringers – and all non-Fringers – short-list right now.
Final thoughts on the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival: Ich bin ein Frïnger
Originally published June 23, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.