Amphibian Stage Productions has just opened a sparkling new theater space on the Near Southside at Main Street and Vickery Boulevard, and what better way to show it off than with a play staged in total darkness?
Leave it to the perversely ingenious ’Phibs to revive their 2003 production of Shaun Prendergast’s The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman in the World to open their next chapter. Prendergast’s 50-minute script, a stark and poignant account of a real 19th-century woman who spent her life as a circus freak, was written to be performed with the lights out: The actors’ voices and the sound designer’s ambient live and recorded effects tell the tale. Presumably, this ploy –– equal parts audacious and gimmicky –– was intended so audiences can share the isolation and mystery of its title character, a Shakespeare-loving peasant girl born with facial hair and leathery skin who traveled the European carnival circuit. While Julia Pastrana doesn’t quite feel like a fleshed-out, satisfying piece of theater, there’s no doubt the show offers unique and powerful qualities on its own bold terms.
Last Friday night’s performance began with what can only be called a briefing: Ticketbuyers were collected in a small room outside the theater and told in unusually emphatic tones to turn off their cell phones and electronic devices. Also, they were warned, keep all personal items –– including limbs and other stray body parts –– out of the aisles, where the performers would be moving about unseen. If for any reason an audience member had to leave in the middle of the show –– and it was strongly implied that this was a very bad idea –– he or she had to raise a hand and loudly announce, “Usher!” to be assisted out of the theater.
When the ’Phibs said Julia Pastrana would be performed in total darkness, they weren’t exaggerating: This was a thick, consuming, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face blackness that I never experienced before, at least not during a stage production. If you have any panic issues that might be triggered by feeling trapped in the dark for an hour, perhaps you should consider another form of live entertainment.
The extreme darkness becomes its own character in Julia Pastrana, performed with urgency and stylish character-voice versatility by five actors under the direction of Jonathan Fielding. In real life, Pastrana, a Mexican Indian woman born in 1834, was a trained dancer who had thick black hair all over her body and simian facial features. At one point, Charles Darwin was asked to offer his opinion on whether she might be the so-called missing link between apes and humans. In the Amphibian staging, Pastrana (voiced by Jessica Vera) is a gentle, articulate, lonely speaker born in rural poverty and sold as a child to a travelling circus emceed by The Showman (Brandon J. Murphy). Her first handler, a cynical huckster named Frazer (Chandler Smith), keeps Julia trapped in a caravan car by day to preserve her novelty for the paying masses. She is eventually treated with varying degrees of humanity by The Countess (Mary Lang), a wealthy European singer who exposes her to high culture, and by Lent (Bob Hess), the “manager” who teaches her the value of money and eventually marries her. It won’t be revealing too much to say that Pastrana had a short, unhappy life that included a pregnancy that ended tragically. But according to playwright Prendergast, she was an indefatigable dreamer who loved poetry and yearned for authentic human connection until the end.
Since you never see the actors during the performance, Julia Pastrana is strongly reminiscent of a 1940s radio play –– performed live in a blackout, that is. Director Fielding does a marvelous job of moving his actors around the small theater space, so audience members never know when a character’s voice will suddenly sound off right next to them. Sound designer David Lanza also does impressive work recreating everything from horses to trains to carnival music to the ominous sound of crickets buzzing at night. The production’s core deficit is that Pastrana never develops beyond a pathetic creature endlessly exploited by those around her. A little more emphasis on the world of her imagination might’ve helped. What did her fantasies of an ideal life sound like? Was she ever angry or resentful at her circumstances, and how might those emotions have changed her soft, sweet voice?
Although The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman in the World is in some ways an underdeveloped show, it’s also a rare theatrical experience that shouldn’t be missed. Here’s hoping the ghost of Ms. Pastrana blesses Amphibian’s new space so that the company’s weird, gutsy, compelling theater entertains Fort Worth for years to come.