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August 23rd, 2008 No comments

Freakshow (Carson Kreitzer) and directed by Geoffrey Hoffman is another delivery straight from clubbed thumb on the menu at convergence-continuum. Very like its counterpart from the 1930’s (Freaks) the play takes a hard look at what it is to be a freak and who may fall within the boundaries of this definition. Usually, of course, those who society would characterize as being “normal” are the ones that truly deserve the “brand” of freak: for behavior that is egregious on the soft side and utterly repugnant on the hard.

Mister Flip (Clyde Simon) is such a character. For most of the play Mr. Flip didn’t particularly strike me as being terribly offensive or vile. He ran his freakshow as the business it was; the one striking feature being that he kept a boy, re-labeled the “Pinhead” (Kellie McIvor) in a cage—which isn’t particularly humane, but neither was the roughly two – three hundred years of mental health management practices of Western civilization which did essentially the same thing with ‘unmanageable’ persons. It isn’t until 4/5ths of the way through Freakshow, when the Dog-faced Judith (Lucy Bredeson-Smith) delivers the story of how she became the Dog-faced Girl and of her time “as the star” of Mr. Flip’s traveling freakshow: prior to the arrival of Amalia, the living torso (Laurel Brooke-Johnson). It is Judith’s story of how she became the central attraction that reveals the true capacity for depravity that Mr. Flip commands—or perhaps he is simply brutal enough to do what needs to be done? Other occasions where Mr. Flip shows his capacity for brutality are mainly those that involve tough business practices, which can be understood given the context in which he operates; but none-the-less, all reveal that Mr. Flip, at least, has a soul that is to the “freaks” what their bodies are to his.

The other big current rushing through the play, like blood through an engorging… well, I won’t go there…is that of sexuality. Obviously, it goes hand-in-hand that the main attraction of seeing freaks is their physical deformity and the fear and self-consciousness that it drives onto the viewer; which is then logically followed by arousal (at one end) and simple speculative considerations regarding sexual practices…or other practices (at the other end). Kreitzer rightly recognizes this paradox and puts it squarely at the center of the play, in fact, opening the play with Amalia’s confrontational statement, “You are wondering if I have ever had sexual intercourse.” Judith, the Dog-faced girl, is also appropriates an overwhelming sense of sexual power, highlighted graphically in her story of the “old days” when she was the “star” of the show and lorded it over the men of the various towns the freakshow passed through. Sexuality drives many of the relationships between the characters, too. Matthew (Stuart Hoffman) is the “caretaker” of the traveling freakshow—“shoveling out the elephant shit”—but also ‘services’ Amalia in the evenings. And Aquaboy, the Human Salamander, (Shawn Galligan), has a tryst with The Girl, a runaway farm teen, (Sarah Kunchick). If one looks that the sexual or love trysts throughout, the only one that seems ‘normal’ is that of Matthew’s love of Amalia or possibly Amalia’s love of the Pinhead. All other relationships seem to be distorted in some way—Amalia’s relationship to Matthew is skewed by utility (she sees it serving a purely sexual function and eventually ‘fires’ him); The Girl’s love interest in Aquaboy seems to lose it’s luster when Aquaboy discusses running away and working in a factory for a living.

For the most part, in Freakshow, we see the stories of several characters presented in an episodic manner—that is, there is no real plot orientation driving the story any particular direction. The freakshow seems to die out of natural causes—lack of attendance due to numerous external factors. So our eye is placed squarely on the human interactions and their implications for who we are as people, as a society, culture, etc. Many times throughout Mr. Flip makes reference to P.T. Barnum, contextualizing the activities we’re seeing in both time and as a pattern of societal behavior and expectation in entertainment. Most other elements fall along predictable lines: the townies that want the show closed, at least on Sundays; running away from something to join the freakshow; the ‘selling’ of freak babies to the show because the parents don’t know what to do—or worse, want to make a fast buck; a bit of light romance; jealousy, envy, fear: all that is human.

Sade Wolfkitten, who usually relegates her talents to the lighting or sound control, steps out big for this production—and I means STEPS out—as in, on glass. Brining a bit of the carnival to Freakshow, Sade gives the audience what they want in a mesmerizing glass-walking feat followed finally by a jump from a stool—barefoot, of course!

The production is strong and Geoffrey Hoffman does an excellent job pacing the performance of a script which has the capacity to slow down and get choppy at times. His choice of lighting and tech effects is good too and directs the eye of the audience with subtlety. The use of Mark “K” Korneitchouk on the guitar fills in some of the “traveling” time effectively. Visually, the play was well done, too, from costuming to the set build to the flapping banners on the wall advertising the “products” of the traveling freakshow. The two big shout-outs go to Laurel Johnson for the at once torturous binding she endures as the torso Amalia, and, at second, for her ability to completely command the audience while having no arms or legs to use for gesture or motion—only her face and the bob of her head and neck for emphasis–and, of course, her powerful command of language. Lucy Bredeson-Smith also delivers hard in Judith’s story, which is profoundly engaging and held the audience wrapt as she subtly wove a tapestry between love and family to sexuality and desire through to brutality and rage. Lucy is showing a true command of her art and its ability to hold an audience fixed. I also enjoyed Stuart Hoffman, who lent a sense of dignity and strength to the character of Matthew which I felt was compelling.

Next up for con-con: Buried Child. Ah… Sam Shepard

Demon Baby

December 8th, 2007 1 comment

Question: What’s a piñata, a twittering bird in a cage, a garden gnome, a children’s book, and several bottles of gin got in common? Well, you’ll find the answer to that question in Erin Courtney’s play, Demon Baby.

Unraveling the meaning of these objects is the key to figuring out just what Courtney has to say about how we deal with displacement and the stuffiness of our lives.

Wren (Dawn Youngs) is an American woman dragged along by her husband Art (Tom Kondilas) to London for work. Left alone all day to do what she pleases, she attempts to work, instead, on a children’s book commissioned by Alan (Curt Arnold)—a book that is to comfort children who are displaced when their parents drag them along to new places to work. The book in question (as well as the work that Art and Alan do) is for a company that is overly concerned with the relocation of its employees—as Wren and Art frequently, in one scene at least, discuss a “relocation manual”—another loaded symbol for you—and Cat (Amy Bistok) discusses her “relocation advisor.” Throughout Demon Baby, this group (Wren, Art, Alan, and Cat) are joined by Charles (Arthur Grothe) and Sally (Teresa McDonough) for Gin-and-Tonic-infused parties with heavy smoking, eating, and vapid conversation.

The lifestyle of heavy drinking and isolation may be what leads to the sudden turn of events for Wren, when she suddenly wakens one night to find an immense garden gnome sitting on her chest. The garden gnome, whom Wren refers to as the Demon Baby (Wes Shofner), is a demon baby because “there’s something a little bit different about it.” At first, Wren is very put out by the Demon Baby and afraid, but soon she comes to hold conversations with it, and soon after the two are thick as thieves.

The rest of the play revolves around the increasingly erratic behavior of Wren as she is influenced (freed from constraint?) by the Demon Baby. This erratic behavior includes one provocative scene in which Wren attempts to seduce Alan, but not knowing how to do it she simply walks out stark naked (bravely carried forth by Ms. Young). As irony would have it, though, Alan is attracted not to Wren, but to her husband. Alan is alone with Wren, actually, to review the children’s book that Wren has finished. The book is very good, as far as Alan and the company are concerned—excepting the strange introduction of a demon baby—which the company cannot accept.

In the end, the book is decommissioned, no one seduces anyone, Cat’s husband (whom we never see) leaves her, Cat falls off a roof while trying to hit the piñata (she lives), the influence of the Demon Baby affects all the partiers, and, eventually, Cat recovers from her agoraphobia. The caveat being that it ends up on Art, who at the end of the play is being visited by the Demon Baby.

The power of this play lies in the interpretation of the images/icons I mention above and that Courtney weaves throughout the piece: the bird in the cage (wren), the piñata, the demon baby, covering furniture with sheets, the content of the children’s book, etc. Through them, I think, the subconscious/unconscious reaction to displacement and suffocation—the fears and threats—are made concrete and real. And these bizarre moments are drawn in sharp relief against the vapid, tiresome lifestyle of the characters in their “normal” life. I am not going to undertake an analysis or excavation of the play at this time, but I likely will in the future, as it struck me and I truly think that there is more to this play than meets the eye.

One thing that I noticed very early on, and throughout, for instance, is the reliance by all the characters (other than Wren) on what is written. That is, what is written has an authority of incontrovertible FACT. Whereas experience is dismissed. For instance, Wren’s experience of the Demon Baby is dismissed by Art as “sleep paralysis” or something else–but the experience itself, the effect of the experience, or its result are ignored. I think Courtney has something very serious to say about our willingness in modern times to rely too much on what is construed as “socially approved” explanation (or what is scientifically known), and the “sleep paralysis” that all of these characters seem to be undergoing in both their personal and business lives demonstrates the sedative effect of ignoring experience or of seeking new experience and simply taking life as it is lived day-to-day.

Demon Baby is directed by Geoffrey Hoffman and it is his first stab at directing. For the most part, I think he did very well. There are some moments that I question—but, of course, who doesn’t indulge in the glory that is back-seat driving? Some of the more prominent moments include large swaths of dead time (scene changes, etc.) and those in which Hoffman deviates from the script. As a playwright, of course, the latter is where my great fear and offense lies. For instance, the script calls for incessant smoking by many of the characters—chain smoking, in fact. There is no smoking in the production. Now, this may have been done for political correctness (god forbid), or perhaps expediency—who knows? But it does take an element from the production that would have, at least, added atmosphere, if not demonstrated the high-strung nature of these characters through their behavior. Another, though minor, point, is an objection to the periodic use of the sound track from American Beauty. I think that sound track is overly loaded for anyone who has seen the movie, and it disrupted my experience. I think convergence-continuum and Hoffman ably used multimedia in this piece, especially in the setting—construction work outside the window and the passage of time; as well as to show—to demonstrate—the inner workings of Wren’s mind at an especially frazzled point (where the Demon Baby is helping her write the children’s book). I think Hoffman was, in many ways, hampered by a script that, to my mind, calls for a great deal of subtlety in its handling and runs a great risk of being flat—which it was at some points. It was difficult, I think, as well because some of the actors lost their British accents, or periodically moved in and out of them, and some were unfortunately flat in their interactions as well: delivery, response, etc.

I’m glad I saw it, as I read it first and it is always better to see a play than to read it, and I will likely go see it again. This is the first of the clubbed thumb deliveries to be at con-con.

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