HOTREVIEW.ORG - Hunter On-line Theater Review
New Rags, New Bones
By Gordon Carver

Rag and Bones
By Noah Haidle
Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr.
New Haven, CT
Box office: (203) 787-4282

Yeats was searching for a theme. During his search he wrote a poem about the impossibility of finding a new theme, of ever moving beyond the boundaries of his own heart. The poem is called "The Circus Animal's Desertion" (1939). Noah Haidle, the twenty-six-year-old playwright whose third play recently opened at Longwharf Theater's studio stage, was also searching for a theme. During his search he encountered Yeats's poem and wrote a play about the possibilities of moving hearts into different boundaries, into the bodies of diversely discontented people searching to feel something different. The result is Rag and Bone, a curious G 'n T aperitif that goes down smooth but leaves one with a puzzling quinine aftertaste.

The poem's final stanza, which contains the play's title, is prominently placed in the program and around the theatre lobby.

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Haidle has taken Yeats's metaphors of ladder and heart, as well as the figures of the searching Poet and raving slut, and transformed them into literal building materials for a theatrical environment.

Set designer G.W. Mercier has created a Ladder Shop belonging to a pair of brothers named George and Jeff. The perimeter of the shallow stage is littered with ladders (mostly metallic, tall) that merge with the drab, mostly empty floor (gray, formica) to present a banal, unadorned work area. In the center stands a steel operating table on runners, with a credit card swiper and kidney dish beneath. There are thick plastic curtains and stand-alone door frames, in garish, harsh pre-set lighting. This deadening, sanitized, distinctly modern rag and bone shop is far from the exotically ancient and rusty locale of Yeats. Haidle evidently questions whether poetry of any sort can flourish in a modern environment.

We are immediately dropped into a new world of cartoon logic when Jeff, the "slow," gentle and whimsical younger brother (played with an appropriately needy whine and ignorant innocence by Ian Brennan) asks George, "Do you think you could make a ladder that goes all the way to the moon?" George, unfailingly pragmatic, tries to explain the practical objections to such a scheme: "the ozone layer, the earth's rotation, insurance." Jeff, undaunted, asks, "How about a ladder to heaven? That's where Mom is. She said she'd wait for me." "Mom's dead in the ground, Jeff. She's not waiting for you anywhere," is George's cruel reply.

George and Jeff's opposed attitudes are elevated into conflicting metaphysical poles that the playwright uses to organize events. A loose theatrical argument is played out between logic, irony, and pragmatic cynicism on the one hand and innocence, faith, sincerity and poetry on the other. The playwright has much fun arranging this collage of composite clichés, deployed with sufficient moxie that they sometimes metamorphose back into metaphors with some power.

All the play's characters, apart from Jeff, George and T-Bone the Pimp, are nameless archetypes, referred to as The Poet, The Hooker, The Millionaire, The Customer and The Waiter. Stock melodramatic situations serve as an interwoven plot and sub-plot: the estranged brothers seek reconciliation after their mother's death, and a pimp and prostitute break up after a violent, co-dependent relationship. The gritty realism in these situations is overwhelmed by Haidle's wry humour and laconic language, as well as the surreal possibilities he lays into the conventions of his world.

Just as we begin to identify with George as a representative of normalcy, for instance, he pulls out a Ziploc baggie containing a large, bloody human heart. This is the first of Haidle's several calmly surreal flips, seized upon with relish by director Tina Landau. "These are what I sell to make extra money. Remember?" he tells Jeff. "After I sell this widget I'm going to live in Bermuda and you can have the ladder store." One brother wants to make a ladder to heaven; the other secretly performs black-market heart transplants for customers dissatisfied with their own hearts and willing to pay for an upgrade.

The bridge between plot and sub-plot is the Poet's actual heart, stolen by George and sold to the Millionaire. The Poet and The Millionaire are thus another paired iteration of opposing metaphysical tendencies. The Poet, as he explains to the Hooker, is now sans heart. Consequently, he's unable to feel anything anymore and can no longer compose poetry. The Millionaire reports to George that his own heart is numb: "I can buy anything in the world but I can't feel anything." George responds by selling him the "Rolls Royce" of all hearts, the Poet's. Whoever has this heart, it is explained, "sees the world with a profound clarity," has "a sense of empathy that borders on the clairvoyant" and even "feels other people's suffering."

Because of the Hooker's sympathy for the heartless Poet (who can now only feel physical sensations such as sexual pleasure and bodily pain), T-bone kidnaps The Millionaire to retrieve the heart. After disburdening the enraptured Millionaire of his ten-million-dollar fortune, T-Bone promptly takes The Hooker to enjoy their new wealth in Bermuda, where she abandons him and returns with The Waiter as her new pimp. Money and Heart are thus figures for numbness and perception. But they are also objects recycled like Yeats's refuse of old bottles, bones and rags within Haidle's simple yet effective pattern.

Using these motifs in such a faux-naïve manner allows Haidle and costume designer Candice Donnelly parodic undercurrents. Tom Riis Farrell's first entrance as the Millionaire, for instance, in pin-stripe trousers and morning coat, combing his moustache with pompous impatience and world-weary superiority, recalls Georg Kaiser's Billionaire, except for the cell phone into which he snaps commands. When possessed of the Poet's heart, he wears a shabby, blood-stained shirt and torn trousers in which he gasps and simpers about the world's beauty, but these clothes repel him immediately when he reverts back to his affluent self. The moustache groomer and cell phone instantly come out again: "Midlife crisis bullshit. Why couldn't I buy a yacht like everyone else."

Blood, which Landau liberally slops over the characters, is a key visual component of this world. The Poet, The Customer, then The Millionaire emerge post-operatively with gore smeared over their chests, as if marked with placental fluid denoting their rebirth into something tactile, vivid and somehow more real than their previous, myopically clean selves. The blood also complements the script's tendency to undercut its surface patina of fantasy with moments of disturbing violence. T-Bone's stylized punches are accompanied by tinny, amplified sound cues. Both T-Bone and The Waiter wallop the Hooker in the stomach while exclaiming, "Baby, you know I don't like hurting you. But sometimes you give me no choice. Every time it breaks my heart." Blood is also a reminder of the generational ties that link the brothers to their mother and T-Bone to his Momma, who died giving birth to him. Woven into the brutal stories is a delicate sketch about generational sacrifice.

The most satisfying element in the production is Landau's rough, minimalist handling of the triumph of the poetic spirit. An especially graceful and poignant moment is when T-Bone "walks into the surf." Landau places a backlit scrim high upstage with a fluorescent azure sea and mauve sand. T-Bone, singing, turns round and walks slowly upstage to meet the scrim, now moving towards him, and actor and scrim revolve in a synchronized dance, with the scrim enveloping him in its lonely, welcoming waves.

Rag and Bone is sometimes arch and too calculatingly naïve. It nevertheless whets my appetite for more from this playwright--a main course to follow the aperitif. The play is a fantasy of literalness, of being literal-minded to the point of fantasy, where one might imagine actually making a ladder up to heaven. The script constantly negotiates the tension between the literal, material objects of life and their metaphoric (poetic) import. Come to think of it, that's what theatre always does and, on a good day, does better than any other medium.