Bone Dance | Northern Sky Theater

Bone Dance by Northern Sky Theater

Created by Jeffrey Herbst
Music by Marshall Keating and Jeffrey Herbst
Originally adapted by Jeffrey Herbst, Fred Alley, James Kaplan and the AFT Company

A funny and frightening musical carnival of mystical ghost stories, gathered from campfires around the world. A magical brew of music, special visual effects, human sound effects, fantastical masks that bring sixteen ghostly and ghoulish tales (back!) to life. Scary, macabre, funny and even touching – sometimes all at once! Directed by Jeffrey Herbst. Ralph Lee, nationally renowned puppeteer and mask-maker extraordinaire has also created several astonishing pieces for the production – hand and stick puppets that vary in size, from the small to the gigantic.




By Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Posted: July 23, 2010


Dancing In The Dark


(Excerpted from the 3-show seasonal review. SEE FULL REVIEW)


There’s nothing like a ghost story to drive home the vital importance of narrative in cheating death, and there’s nothing like AFT’s outdoor stage, in the depths of woodsy Peninsula State Park, to evoke how closely death once lurked, just beyond the shadows of our ancestors’ campfires.


AFT’s wildly popular “Bone Dance” has been thumbing its nose at the grim reaper since 1995 by mixing haunted tales from around the world with gallows humor – including a perfectly harmonized madrigal on corpse-fattened worms and groaners that could make the dead turn in their graves (Sample: “Hear about the ghost who got lost? He was mist”).


In two of the stories, including the hilariously creepy “The Man Who Married a Finger,” the living marry the dead. Many of the stories feature hunger and cold – a reminder of a time when both were common killers, and when animal cunning could make the difference between survival and starvation.


One of the best of these is “Flying Head,” in which an ever larger and more voracious monster comes calling for a young woman’s baby. A series of increasingly large monster heads are among the many ingenious puppets and masks designed by Ralph Lee, all of which add immeasurably to the stories in which they appear.


Lee’s creations hark back to older storytelling traditions, as does the cast’s heavy reliance on pantomime, accompanied by exquisitely timed sound effects.


There’s even room here for some Louis Armstrong, with a rendition of “Skeletons in the Closet” that features smartly tap-dancing skeletons, as well as some scat singing from Mancheski in “Wait Till Emmet Comes,” one of many scenes that he steals while displaying his full range of comic gifts and helping us laugh in – and at – the surrounding darkness.

Milwaukee Journal
DAMIEN JAQUES – August 2005


Masks reveal new face of ‘Bone Dance’


American Folklore Theatre haunts anew with New York artist’s creations


Fish Creek- The bones are dancing again.


Among the first shows to put the American Folklore Theatre on the map in the mid-‘90s was a compilation of ghost tales and spooky stories assembled by artistic director Jeffrey Herbst. He called it “Bone Dance.”


The show was a perfect fit with AFT’s unconventional format- original, family friendly, one-act, storytelling theater with music performed on an outdoor stage in Peninsula State Park. The revue skillfully pulled the audience back and forth between delicious creepiness and gallows humor, and it somehow managed to be polished and hip amid the rustic setting.


“Bone Dance” was remounted a few years later, and this summer a new version with a decidedly different look has joined “Muskie Love” and “Lumberjacks in Love” in rotating repertory. The new visual approach is due to the involvement of Ralph Lee, a New York mask maker, designer and director who uses masks, giant figures and puppets in productions staged by his Mettawee River Theatre Company.


That troupe shares some similarities with AFT. It creates and stages original theater pieces based on myths, legends and folklore. Mettawee River performs outdoors and makes heavy use of live music. Unlike AFT, it is a touring company that travels through New England and upstate New York, and also plays some indoor dates in New York City.


Lee, who is credited as co-director of the updated “Bone Dance,” designed for the show a range of hand and stick puppets that vary in size, from the small to the gigantic. Especially impressive is an eight-piece puppet operated by four actors.


A number of masks crafted by Lee also are used in several of the revue’s musical numbers and vignettes. The puppets and masks are an evocative addition to the AFT, which has not been reliant particularly on visual elements in the past. They also subtly move “Bone Dance” in a different direction.


The 2005 edition of the show is more ethereal than hip, with a stronger whiff of a nether world. Coolness has been traded for a slightly more arty approach.


Herbst has shuffled the line-up of material, adding and subtracting songs and vignettes. Louis Armstrong’s “Skeleton in the Closet,” with choreography by Herbst and Pam Kriger, is among the newcomers. Another addition, the old schoolyard Gothic number “The Worms Crawl In” is sung madrigal style to amusing effect.


The core of the show continues to be two southern Appalation stories, “Calico Coffin” and “Tailybone,” that are capable of sending a chill down a spine, and “Party Girl on a Grave” and “Bus Stop,” a couple of traditional tales given endings with comic twists. These won’t keep you awake at night, but they have enough bite to give “Bone Dance” a solidly scary grounding.


All the key members of the AFT’s resident acting company have returned this summer, and each makes important contributions to the show. Doug Mancheski’s abundant comfort with and ability for physical comedy never gets old. The elevation of a single eyebrow combined with a few words delivered in his signature guttural croak triggers waves of laughter.


Back for her 10th season, the always appealing Laurie Flanigan contributes a high-profile versatility essential for this type of theater. She’s funny, can be poignant, and sings very well.


Jon Andrew Hegge is consistently solid and frequently amusing with anything he is asked to do. Lee Becker is so active – performing onstage, providing sound effects offstage and occasionally joining musical accompanists Marshall Keating and Maureen Milbach in the wings – he must have an identical twin. A single performer couldn’t be doing that much.


Kari Demien is a fetching ingénue and more in this collection of stories. AFT co-founder Fred (Doc) Heide has neither the acting nor the singing chops of the others, but he offers a unifying and even reassuring presence on stage.

Green Bay Press Gazette
WARREN GERDS – June 2005




4 stars (out of four)


FISH CREEK — Take 16 ghost stories told at campfires around the world. Add music, special visual effects, human sound effects, fantastical masks and costumes and a lot of acting skills, and you have the fun Bone Dance.


The show is American Folklore Theatre at an elevated level. The setting may be “folksy” — wooden benches in an amphitheater in the woods, with trees growing in and around the stage — but the artistry is sophisticated.


Bone Dance is 90 minutes of fascination with tales that spook and delight.


Eight performers backed by two musicians do all.


In “Tailybone,” Fred “Doc” Heide is the animated storyteller.


Castmates gather around as musicians, dogs and the voice of a creature.


Seems the narrator has chopped off the tail of the creature that has tried to invade his shack, then tossed the tail in his supper — beans — which he eats.


The creature returns over and over, calling such things as, “I want my tailybone.” It gets what it wants.


“The Man Who Married a Finger” finds Lee Becker, for a lark, betrothing a bony finger he and friends find sticking out of the ground in the forest. The finger is attached to the corpse of a woman, who eagerly springs from the ground.


This is a scene of shock and laughs. Doug Mancheski plays the woman in a comically horrifying costume.


From Japan comes “The Snow Woman.” Laurie Flanigan is clad as the haunting title character, with a sleek mask and icy white gown.


In the heart-tugging story, the Snow Woman spares a young man (Brad Anderson) from a chilling death, only to return years later when he lets out their secret to his lovely wife (Kari Demien), with whom he has 10 children.


Variety abounds in the 13 other stories. They are comical, sad, chilling and touching.


Created by company artistic director Jeffrey Herbst, this production is light enough for kids who can handle the macabre and sassy and sensual enough for adults.


Masks and costumes of New York puppeteer Ralph Lee add new layers of interest.


The acting and timing are splendid. Mancheski and Jon Andrew Hegge are experts at comic expression.


Becker sings, dances, plays trombone and lots more. Flanigan can be a siren and a cold-hearted witch — and play flute.


Demien is a dynamo at a full range of acting, singing and dancing skills.


Through summer, they’re all in the two other proven hit musical comedies making up the season.


Musical Review


Bone Dance — 8 p.m. Monday, Friday; 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Aug. 26 at American Folklore Theatre, Peninsula State Park amphitheater, Fish Creek.


Also through Aug. 27 are the musical comedies Musky Love (8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday; 6 p.m. Saturday) and, starting June 22, Lumberjacks in Love (6 p.m. Wednesday; 8:30 p.m. Saturday). $14.50 adults, $7.50 teens, $4.50 children, free ages 2 and younger.

Resorter Reporter
ED HUYCK – June 2003


‘Bone Dance’ prove death is entertaining


There are good nights for ghost stories; there are great nights for ghost stories; and there are perfect nights for ghost stories.


Friday evening, June 17, was a perfect night. The air at Peninsula State Park was sharp and cool, while the wind rustled through the trees as if it were bringing a cadre of ghosts on its breeze.


And American Folklore Theatre obliged the need, presenting “Bone Dance” at its outdoor stage in the park.


Like the two predecessor productions of the show, this “Bone Dance” is a collection of ghostly and ghoulish story-theater tales (for the uninitiated, in story theater, the actors serve as characters and narrators, while using minimal props, to the tell the tale).


The key difference this year is the work of Ralph Lee, a New York puppeteer- he founded the annual New York Halloween Parade- who created several astonishing pieces for the show. His contributions, and a revitalized collection of stories and songs, make for a thoroughly entertaining evening of theater.


The show includes 16 stories and songs drawn from a number of storytelling traditions from around the world. They can be scary, macabre, funny and even touching- sometimes all in the same story.


These stories are often drawn from cultures where the line between life and death was much thinner than in ours- so the ideas of the recently, or not so recently, departed falling in love or marrying a naïve groom weren’t as odd as they may be to our ears.


That gives “Bone Dance” a surprising level of depth. Yes, these are tales meant to create thrills or laughs, but the real feelings, about our ultimate end and what may lie beyond, is always there.


Lee’s puppetry is used in a few stories, but to fantastic effect, whether for the lovestruck corpse in “The Man who Married a Finger,” the icy beauty of “The Snow Woman” or a series of creations for “The Flying Head.”


The last story, first presented in 2004’s “When Dogs Could Talk,” has a striking staging, as the head grows from appearance to appearance, until it takes half the company to control it in the last sequence. Maybe it was the familiarity with the story or maybe I missed the intensity of a single actor performing the role, but I found that I preferred last year’s more straightforward telling.


Of course, it wouldn’t work without the contributions of the eight company members that cavort throughout “Bone Dance.” AFT favorite Doug Mancheski, as usual, has a number of scene-stealing moments, from his grass-skirt wearing “Big Eater” to his scat singing in “Wait ‘Till Emmet Comes.” Laurie Flanigan brings out the beautiful danger of “The Snow Woman,” while the balance of the cast- Brad Anderson, Ethan Angelica, Lee Becker, Kari Demien, John Andrew Hegge and Fred “Doc” Heide- bring all of the stories to life.


All of this is handled with deft grace by Jeff Herbst, who created the original production and co-directs here with Lee. Add in the talents of music director Marshall Keating, scene designer Kathleen Rock and costume designer Susan Neason (some whose creations rival Lee’s in term of sheer spectacle) and you have a show that works beautifully from beginning to end.


If there is any problem with “Bone Dance,” it is that there is too much goodness stuffed into it. A few fewer stories would allow the show as a whole a chance to breathe a bit more (and give the audience a bit of a relief from the hard benches at Peninsula State Park).


That’s only a minor problem, however. If you want a night of ghostly tales, or just want to be entertained on a summer’s evening, “Bone Dance” is a fine choice.


“Bone Dance” runs at 8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays and 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Aug. 26 at the outdoor amphitheater at Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek. No park sticker is needed to attend. For more information, call 854-6117.