Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Skinny on Elaine Blanchard's "Skin and Bones"

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 9:55 AM

You know the old cliche about Eskimos having some ridiculous number of words for snow? It’s one of those things that sounds unique until you stop to think about just how common the human urge to define things really is. A building with four walls and a roof might be a house, a home, a manse, or an hourly-rate-motel, and so on. Every word expresses the same basic idea but paints a very different physical and emotional picture. So, with this thought in mind, which comes first, the actor or the storyteller?

I ask only because I'd like to do some justice to Elaine Blanchard, a local artist who, once you get past the word “artist,” isn’t all that easy to define.

She is a minister, and handy with loaded anecdotes. She’s also an activist of the “Do as I do, and as I say” school. She is possibly a bit of an exhibitionist, compelled for whatever reason, to tell the kinds of true life stories that most people pray nobody will ever discover. She is a documentarian and a fiction writer who will mix the two forms together if she thinks it makes a more compelling story. More than anything else though, Elaine Blanchard is a survivor. She has lived her share of hell and believes at her core that good stories can be a lifeline.

Blanchard’s latest effort, Skin and Bones, is not about eating disorders, although it does chronicle the years the narrator spent throwing up her meals to stay thin. Neither is it about sex or sexual identity, although it also covers abuse and a personal awakening.

If anything Skin and Bones is an exploration of the word “good,” in an especially Southern context, and as it might be applied to little girls, ‘ol boys, habits, and behavior relative to cultural expectations. It begins with a chubby, adolescent preacher’s daughter molested in a cheap motel by a rich man and his wife— "good people." Considering the autobiographical nature of the piece it’s no real spoiler to say that it ends onstage, in real time, with triumphant bows.

Blanchard is a spellbinding performer. She slips effortlessly back and forth between many characters—male, female, young and old. She never judges or overplays.

As I mentioned, Skin and Bones is a distinctly Southern story, with a subtle, but healthy dose of sun-bleached nostalgia and a curiously strong sense of humor given the tough subject matter. Before a final dress rehearsal Blanchard admitted that she was having a little trouble not breaking character following some of the show’s bigger punchlines.

“That’s how it is with family,” she said. “The funny and the awful sitting right next to each other.” And so it sits.

Elaine Blanchard in Skin and Bones
  • Elaine Blanchard in "Skin and Bones"

Blanchard has a way with the awful too. She makes you feel the weight and humidity of the good ol’ boy businessman as he lies down on top of an underaged girl asking repeatedly, “Isn’t that nice?” You can smell his sweat and cologne. You can practically hear "Dueling Banjos" when the guns finally come out and Blanchard’s essentially true and moving story begins to resemble a drive-in movie. (Which it should eventually become, probably).

Skin and Bones sounds awfully academic if you describe it as a one woman show about gender identity and eating disorders. It also sounds a little like some intolerable piece of coffee shop performance art circa 1989. But the story elements in this sprawling, drawling yarn, listed one after the other, sound like lurid teasers on the cover of a pulp novel. And contrasting her ministerial skills, Blanchard has a little Quentin Tarantino in her. She glories in the glory. And in all the gritty, often funny detail.

Skin and Bones is another impressive launch for Voices of the South. And instead of calling Blanchard a storyteller, or an actor, or a writer of imaginary screenplays, I think I’m just going to call her a marvel because her ability to stand in an empty space and take her audience on such a vivid mental journey makes telepathy seem absolutely plausible.

For ticket information click here. The show has already been extended but Theatre South is tiny and if opening weekend is any indication it may sell out.

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