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Penobscot Theatre’s new production finds real humanity in virtual reality

Copyright Magnus Stark | BDN
Copyright Magnus Stark | BDN
Rachel Burttram stars in "Ugly Lies The Bone" at the Penobscot Theatre Company this March.

“Ugly Lies The Bone,” Penobscot Theatre’s new production, fulfills a lot of artistic director Bari Newport’s requirements when choosing plays: It’s new, it’s written by a woman, and it’s technologically challenging.

In the case of this play, however, audience members not only get to see immersive, colorful projections on the Bangor Opera House stage — they actually get to see through the eyes of one of the performers, thanks to a virtual reality game created specifically for the show by Bangor-based game designer Chuck Carter. What lead actress Rachel Burttram sees through her VR goggles, playgoers will see projected on stage as well.

Written in 2015 by Lindsey Ferrentino, “Ugly Lies The Bone,” tells the story of Jess, a veteran who returns home from Afghanistan with severe burns and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is psychologically and physically shattered, but her world is put back together with the help of cutting edge virtual reality technology as part her extensive, but painful, physical therapy.

Newport, who also directs the show, was drawn to the way the play uses technology to tell a story that is all too familiar to many of Maine’s veterans.

“I thought it was such a modern, fresh way of telling a story — a story about healing, and about hope,” said Newport. “It’s a really powerful female voice, that is also funny. And it’s such an interesting way to explore technology that’s so cutting edge.”

Burttram has spent the past few months preparing by doing research on what life is like for war veterans.

“She’s a really complex woman, who has gone to the darkest of places, and she comes out swinging. She’s a fighter,” said Burttram. “It’s an incredibly cathartic and beautiful play, that really shows the best of the human spirit, and that healing is possible.”

The biggest challenge in producing “Ugly Lies The Bone” is bringing to life the virtual world Jess inhabits during therapy. Initially, the plan was to work with New England School of Communications instructor Brave Williams to create the projections to simulate the virtual world Jess lives in.

As Williams began creating the projections, however, it became clear that they needed more than just images — in order to tell the story fully, they needed to create an actual game.

Enter Carter, founder of Bangor-based Eagre Games, which since 2011 has been creating non-violent, immersive, story-driven video games. Over the past six weeks, Carter and Williams collaborated to create a fully functional game, which Burttram will experience while wearing VR goggles, and which the audience will see projected on stage.

 

Carter is a nationally respected game designer, and is one of the original creators of the blockbuster 1990s game “Myst.” Using VR outside of entertainment — particularly, in a therapeutic setting — is one of the developments Carter is most excited about. It’s been in use for several years now, in both mental health and physical therapy settings.

“There are a number of hospitals and rehab facilities around the country that use VR as a way to take people out of themselves for a little while, while they are doing therapy that is often very painful,” said Carter. “You can lose yourself completely in something outside of the real world, and it seems to work. It’s an amazing application for something that started with designers making video games.”

Though “Ugly Lies The Bone” is ostensibly about technology, Burttram says that the real message of the show is not about virtual reality — it’s about actual reality, and the human experience.

“The beauty of the play is that you come into it thinking it’s all about technology, and virtual reality, but you come out of it realizing that it’s about the human heart,” said Burttram.

The play is produced in collaboration with the Maine Science Festival, set for March 15-18 at locations throughout Bangor. The festival features programming on a variety of topics in science and technology, but there are several events specific to what’s explored in the play, including a VR workshop with Carter at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Cross Insurance Center, and a workshop on improvisation and trauma recovery at Penobscot Theatre’s Dramatic Academy at 51 Main St., also at 10 a.m. Saturday. After Sunday’s 3 p.m. performance of the play, there will be a panel discussion at the theater about the play’s themes.

“Ugly Lies The Bone” has two preview performances on March 15 and 16, and then runs Wednesdays-Sundays through April 1 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are available at the PTC box office or by calling 942-3333.

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