The most recent PW show, Leo Baum’s Guide to Articulating a Skeleton, is ostensibly based on a series of historical events set off by an explorer’s failed excursion to the North Pole in 1897. The explorer, an American named Robert Peary (who ten years later did reach, or very nearly reach, the North Pole) made acquaintances with an Inuit tribe as he passed through Alaska, and convinced a small number of the tribsemen to return with him to New York. Those that came were taken into the custody of New York Museum of Natural History archaeologists; within a year, all but one died of tuberculosis.
The survivor, Minik, was a young boy at the time, and a Museum employee adopted him and raised him in New York. Minik’s father was among the deceased Inuits, but never received a proper burial, as the museum wished to study his bones; a teenaged Minik, discovering this ruse, initiated an ultimately unsuccessful struggle with the museum to regain possession of the skeleton.
All of these things lurk in the margin of Leo Baum, but none are at the heart of the play–that role falls to Leo Baum (Fletcher Bell ’16), an elementary school student whose father, Saul, seems to have adopted Minik, now grown to adolescence. (In real life, a curator named William Wallace adopted Minik.)
Leo and Saul are the creations of writer Eliza Cohen ’15, who writes that the “play hopes to articulate a child’s experience of being alive in a moment that is now trapped behind time.” Indeed, Leo Baum is most interested in childhood, which it sees as a kind of perpetual bewilderment: Leo, for a majority of the play, is confused, bemused, or frustrated, unable to make full sense of the complicated world around him.
The plot, while not especially linear, revolves roughly around Leo’s daily life: school, synagogue, and trips to the museum. Every so often Saul or Minik pops up and alludes to the burial ordeal, and during many of these moments Leo manages to make at least somewhat of a blunder in his understanding of the issue.
Despite its basis in historical fact, however, much of Leo Baum is abstract and interpretive. Director Ada Dolan-Zalaznick ’17 conducts changes in scene and props with choreographed, hypnotic sequences; Marli Scharlin ’16, especially, performs some excellent, brief dance interludes. The more traditional scenes can devolve into these trancelike scenes on a moment’s notice; Leo’s trip to synagogue quickly turns strange, with the other worshippers performing a synchronized, sitting dance, while the words of the rabbi are echoed in warped, almost ominous tones over the speaker. The synagogue scene, particularly mesmerizing, is a testament to Dolan-Zalaznick’s inventiveness in livening up what sometimes comes off as an otherwise somewhat typical coming-of-age story. The creation of space and the representation of the dinosaur are also striking.
The star of the show, however–both literally and figuratively–is Bell. His bewildered Leo is charming and sympathetic, and Bell’s earnest, wide-eyed line delivery practically convinces you that he is, in fact, a child. This effect is compounded by Scharlin’s equally excellent performance as–well, it’s never made explicitly clear, but she would seem to be Leo’s conscience, or his internal monologue, or his imaginary friend. Whatever she is, the play puts her and Bell in frequent, endearing exchanges, and the chemistry between the two actors makes the whole play work quite well.
Jake Gogats ’18, as Minik, and Jonathan Davies ’17, as Saul Baum, are earnest and effective, too, but Cohen gives them less interesting work to do: the play is about Leo, and what Leo represents–childhood, and all its strange, frustrating wonders.
The play closes tonight at 8 p.m. in the PW Upspace.
Image via Danielle Perelman ’17.