Emotional Depth In A Warehouse: Youngblood's FREAKSHOW

Youngbloods Atmospheric Warehouse Drama

Oct. 30, 2010
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The Lincoln Storage Warehouse rests across the street from a Water Street-style bar out in the middle of nowhere. It feels like kind of a run-down section of town in the middle of the night. Cars pull into a parking lot and people file into a vacant industrial kind of place—there’s the vague feeling of a DIY garage punk show about the atmosphere as people filter-in, down a hallway and into a small area dominated by a tastefully garish Evan Crain set. Red and white striped banners reach out into the audience. The arm of an otherwise unseen actor is visible on one end of the stage—an actor rests in a tank on the other side of it. Straw is strewn about the place . . . there are a couple of bails of the stuff resting in corners, giving the warehouse some of that distinctive feel of a vintage circus. It's Youngblood Theatre's production of Carson Kreitzer's Freakshow--amemorable staging of an enjoyable show.

The play that unfolds is remarkably brief. It’s about people. Here’s a comprehensive look at the ensemble:

Tess Cinpinski—Amalia, the Woman With No Arms Or Legs--

“You’re wondering if I have ever had sexual intercourse.”

The most prominent real-life version of Amalia was Prince Randian the Living Torso—a gentleman from British Guiana who toured with P.T. Barnum in the late 19th century. He can be seen rolling cigarettes in Todd Browning’s cult classicFreaks. A woman with no arms or legs who is also quite beautiful is a clever turn on the premise courtesy of Kreitzer. Cinpinski does a brilliant job of developing subtlety in a character limited in expressing herself with voice and facial expressions alone. The trick of lighting and scenery that makes her look limbless doesn’t quite work, if only for the arms. She’s wearing a blouse with arms—no arms physically visible, but a freakshow would try to exhibit Amalia’s armless-ness with more of a dramatic effect.

A woman everyone must serve—a woman everyone pays to see has a powerful ego, but there’s an undeniable vulnerability to the character that goes well beyond her physical limitations. Cinpinski juggles all of the subtlety quite well, never quite performing the character’s personality so overly dramatically as to come across as anything less than authentic. The character ends up coming across a lot less cruel and sinister than she could have. Cinpinski makes a remarkably approachable, down-to-earth limbless circus princess. It’s a provocative performance.

Adrian Feliciano—The Human Salamander—--

“Changed. And I have mutated. Into this half-human creature . . . so I became the Human Salamander.”

Real-life freak show counterparts to this characters included: Otis Jordan—billed as "Otis the Frog Man," and "El Hoppo the Living Frog Boy." People born with spindly or malformed limbs or webbed hands could make a living exhibiting themselves as human amphibians. Adrian Feliciano plays a character written to be wonderfully exotic and impossibly attractive yet incapable of living completely in or out of the water. Feliciano puts in a heartbreakingly vulnerable performance as the Human Salamander. Costuming and make-up on Feliciano add just enough of a visual cues to add to a really compelling performance. The script calls for him to spend much of the show in a tank off water—he’s there as the audience walks in at the beginning of the show. The continual sloshing of the water throughout the performance, along with the occasion shot of water out of the tank, allows Feliciano to extend his performance beyond some rather poetic dialogue and into interesting non-verbal characterization that adds to the atmosphere.

Rich Gillard—Mr. Flip--

Gillard plays the man running the freakshow—a precise, charming Mr. Flip. The sort of clinical professionalism that comes so easily to Gillard onstage is sent in an entirely new direction here. The character is a tricky balance. As modern, liberated people, we tend to want to harshly judge a man who would make a living exhibiting the deformities of others. The script shows him to be a compassionate man, however, and the tendency is to view him as something of a paternal figure in charge of things, but an entirely sympathetic portrayal of the man would lack depth as well. Gillard rather deftly balances between light and shadow in the role, carving out a truly compelling character. Gillard’s put in some good performances in the past between UWM and previous Youngblood shows. This is by far his most memorable work to date.

April Paul—Louisa--

April Paul has a youthful energy about her in the role of a farm girl who has fallen for the Human Salamander. At first, she’s playing a heroine in a love story, but as the story progresses, the character gets a lot more interesting. Her story illustrates the allure of the circus in the late 19th century in a palpably energetic performance by Paul. The chemistry between her and Feliciano was a great deal of fun to watch. Her rendering of the character’s depth beyond the romance was a pleasant surprise.

Andrew Edwin Voss—Matthew

In the role of Matthew, Voss plays to the male end of the human fascination with the exotic opposite Louise. Matthew has fallen in love with Amalia. Matthew’s love for Amalia is more or less the beginning and end of the character, which doesn’t give Voss a whole lot of room to develop an interesting character. Voss manages a memorable performance nonetheless—largely through sheer force of charm. This is a guy willing to work the awful, most menial offstage tasks in the freakshow just for an opportunity to spend some time with Amalia. There’s a sweetness in that—and Voss brings it to the stage without making it seem at all forced—quite an accomplishment.

Rachel Williams—The Dog-Faced Girl (RETIRED)--

“I was the uglymug with the harelip. But Mr. Flip saw I was blooming. About to burst. Out. . . . Down on all fours in the dirt.”

Real-life freakshow counterparts include the Hirsute Man and Jo-Jo the Dogface Boy. Traditionally these were people suffering from a disorder that caused hair to grow more or less equally all over the body. With Judith, the retired dog-faced girl it was different. Merely growing-up with a harelip was enough to grant her supernatural status. As was evidently quite often the case in freakshows, common abnormalities became exaggerated to appeal to audiences. Sometimes the exotic was entirely painted over a completely normal person. (Early on in his career, Harry Houdini once performed in full body make-up as a “wild man from Africa,” not a high point in his career.)

The character of Judith is one of freakshow elder. She has retired from the business and now takes care of Amalia. There’s an animalistic side to her nature that Williams brings out in subtle shades at times . . . largely serving as something of an executive assistant to Mr. Flip. There’s a profound inner strength in the character that’s interesting to watch. Williams isn’t wearing much make-up and it honestly doesn’t look as though she even has a harelip, but the general lack of deformity plays-up the conscious decision made on the part of some of the freaks to stay as they are, living a life where they exhibit themselves as curiosities.

Benjamin James Wilson—The Pinhead—--

“My mother came to see me today . . . I could hear her crying in the back. I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was there.”

Microcephalics—those born with substandard cortical development—were popular as circus freak show “pinheads.” They had an unusual and “primitive” appearance that found them being framed onstage as tribal people from far away places. The most popular performer was Schlittze Surtees, who lived a fairly long life. She was born at the turn of the century and passed away in ’71.

Benjamin James Wilson doesn’t look like a pinhead. It would be a staggeringly difficult look to fake onstage. A large mat of hair provides enough illusion for Wilson to sink into. It’s a very beautiful performance with some rather nice singing and starkly poetic bits of dialogue. Trapped deeply within his neurological malformation, there’s a kind of innocence in the character. Amalia is in love with him . . . a match that fuses the two most profound disabilities in a romance that could and would never happen. It’s kind of a metaphor for the whole show and Wilson brings his end of it to the stage quite well.

The Carson Kreitzer script has a provocative depth to it that never really manages to go anywhere. This is perfectly alright and nothing to be ashamed of as it’s only onstage for 90 minutes or so without intermission. The script is content to simply and symbolically end the story by directly addressing the fate of the freakshows . . . and that’s okay, but it’s nothing terribly energizing. The ending would feel like more of a disappointment if it weren’t for the fact that the ensemble does such a good job of bringing honest, likeable characters to the stage. Above all, this is a brief opportunity to hang out with a few characters breezing through town—breezing through a few actors on their way to some other engagement on the other side of consciousness.

Youngblood’s production of Freakshow runs through November 20th at the Lincoln Storage Warehouse on 208 South First Street.


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