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.