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'Boneyard Prayer' arresting
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Martin (Alex Balestrieri), right, and a fellow gravedigger (Brandon Boler) confront Martin's alter ego in Redmoon Theatre's melancholy and moving "Boneyard Prayer."


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Published: 4/4/2008 12:06 AM

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Known for its bold, physical, highly theatrical events, Chicago's Redmoon Theatre always delivers arresting visuals. Most of them involve a combination of remarkable puppets.

Their latest, "Boneyard Prayer," featuring expressive, nearly life-size puppets by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, is no exception. Conceived and directed by Frank Maugeri, this moody, artfully crafted meditation on loss and grief and human failure and forgiveness has a rough, fragile tone that aptly reflects its fractured heart.

Although it still retains some semblance of spectacle, the affecting "Boneyard Prayer," largely inspired by William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Ironweed," is more subdued than a typical Redmoon show. It's also more musical.

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Completely sung through, it's the first show of its kind for the company, whose initial foray into musical theater came in 2006 with its vaudeville-inspired "The Golden Truffle." Composer Charles Kim and lyricist Seth Bockley have fashioned the show as a folk opera, whose honky-tonk rhythms, plaintive hymns and rootsy, unadorned melodies reflect its Depression-era setting. Its downbeat subject, melancholy score (played by pianist Rob Cruz) punctuated by dissonance, and the heartrending yet painfully honest lyrics ("regret is a leaf that keeps falling") make for a rather bleak show. And yet, the suggestion that sanctuary awaits even the most despairing soul makes for an ultimately affirming experience.

The action unfolds in co-director/set designer Tracy Otwell's graveyard Purgatory -- giant, dirt-filled crates that lighting designer Jim Horan bathes in murky, sepia tones -- where man's past is literally unearthed and his guilt exposed.

Here, in the form of Mooney-Bullock's exceptional handiwork, lay the alter egos of a couple undone by drink: Martin (actor/puppeteer Alex Balestrieri, subtly channeling his character's remorse) and his wife, Alice (a touching performance from actor/puppeteer Kasey Foster).

After gravediggers (Brandon Boler, Maegan Jenkins and Alice Wedoff) inadvertently disturb his grave, Martin, a rummy, vagrant haunted by his troubled past, awakens to reflect upon his life and the tragedy that drove him and his wife to booze, which led to the downward spiral that left each of them homeless and alone.

Their past is recalled as shadow plays against an evocative, primitive backdrop designed by Otwell and illustrated by Robert Lovelett. There's a wonderful cinematic quality to the shadow play scenes, which play out like dreams: hazy, with the edges blurred.

But for all its artistry, seamlessly integrated by Maugeri, the show's strength involves its human element: the interaction between the actors and their artful counterparts. Their subtle movements -- a nod of a head, a twitch of an arm, a slump of a shoulder -- animate the inanimate. And the fixed expression becomes expressive; the carved wood lives and breathes and wonderful theater ensues.

"Boneyard Prayer"

3½ stars out of four

Location: Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard St., Chicago

Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through May 11

Running Time: About one hour, no intermission

Tickets: $15-$35

Parking: Street parking available

Box office: (312) 850-8440, ext. 111, or

Rating: For adults, contains adult themes