Monday, November 3, 2014

Freak and Greeks

In my retrospective plan, I'd hoped my best reviews would be about the plays I remember best, but that's not necessarily the case.  (I should say this retrospective actually began with reproducing my review of Salmon Is Everything from 2006, which was an example of a review I still like about a play I still remember as one of the best I got to write about--although it was some time later.)

At the moment I'm thinking more about the plays than the reviews, and this one--Crawdaddy: A Freak Tragedy, from April 2008 has remained in my memory as a singularly exciting and weird theatrical experience.  There was a quality of surreal danger about it.  At that point it was a strange amalgamation of monologue, music, dark comedy and bizarre family drama.

Almost a year later, a revised version of the show with a different director returned to the Arcata Playhouse. I was disappointed by the changes--it was lighter, drained of danger and life.   (I wrote about it elsewhere on this blog, here. The illustration here is from that production.  I couldn't access my April 2008 review on the NCJ Journal site--that year has mysteriously disappeared.)  But its return allowed me to reap some benefits of reflection.  So what follows is all about this first version, but combining my review at the time with this later description.

The bit that I mention specifically--the puppet's story about his father's job testing the wringers on wring washing machines by literally being wrung through them--has stayed with me ever since.  I mentioned it just a few months ago to David Ferney, who wrote and performed that particular piece.

 Freaks Are Really Greeks? A Promising Work in Progress at the Arcata Playhouse (April 2008)

 Theatre can be most alive when it is rough and unfinished. Some of the most exciting performances I’ve witnessed have been staged readings, script-in-hand or living room cold readings. But what I saw and heard last week at the Arcata Playhouse is more than the raw and even intuitive attempt to explore dramatic material—it’s the living process of creating a play through collaboration, which can include the audience.

 The piece under construction is Crawdaddy: A Freak Tragedy, produced by Dell’Arte, together with Arcata’s Four on the Floor Productions and a troupe from Canada that specializes in mask work and puppetry, the Calgary Animated Objects Society, or CAOS.

 As is often the case here, all these roads lead back to the Dell’Arte company and school, which many of the participants have in common. Script and song lyrics are by Toby Mulford, music by Tim Gray; the director is Stephen Buescher, and head designer is Xstine Cook, the founder of CAOS.

 Only an insider could accurately describe the nature of the ongoing collaboration, but, as most group efforts do, it results in iterations—successive versions that reflect new creative insights, responses to observations of performances by insiders and audiences, as well as technical improvements. So each performance at this stage is likely to be different.

As might be expected with these particular companies, this production is developing puppetry, costumes, props, sound and lighting effects right along with the script, so there is plenty to see and hear (including singing and instrumental performances.) Beginning last Saturday and continuing this Thursday, Friday and Saturday (April 10-12), audiences are formally brought into the process with question-and-answer sessions after the show.

 “Crawdaddy” is about a troupe of sideshow “freaks,” that is also a family, with San Francisco Mime Troupe veteran James Griffiths as Crawdaddy ( he’s got crab claws for hands, and he becomes the patriarch of the clan); Jacqueline Dandeneau in an immense fat suit as his Fat Lady wife; Zuzka Sabata and Esther Haddad as their Siamese Twin-daughters; Tyler Olsen as the son-in-law Val, and David Ferney speaking through a sinister puppet as the Barker. Jerry Lee Wallace is the Outside Talker (who was literally outside talking up the performance before it started, promising “David Spade live,” which is certainly my idea of a freak show.)

 I caught a dress rehearsal and the opening night performance, and there were changes even in the day between. At least one wasn’t planned. Jackie Dandenau, who had been so expressive and animated in rehearsal, had become so physically disoriented by the fat suit that she almost didn’t go on for opening night, and her performance was more subdued, especially at first.
Violet and Daisy Hilton, Siamese twins in the 1932 film Freaks

The knowledge I brought with me to that rehearsal concerning “freaks”—people with real, exaggerated and fake deformities who made their living as exhibits or performers—was pretty limited. There were still some freak shows attached to traveling carnivals when I was a child, though I never entered one, and in the 70s I did see the 1932 Todd Browning film (“Freaks”) with actual freak show performers as the actors. In that movie, the “freaks” were the honorable ones, while a couple of “normal” people in the circus were the villains.

 Things are not so simple in “Crawdaddy.” For one thing, there are no “normal” people in it—their presence is felt only as showers of coins and greenbacks. Crawdaddy describes his show in lofty terms, as “extraordinary people doing extraordinary things” and promising “magic and mystery.” But also “the transcendent and the twisted.” Early on, Veronica has dreams of creating an excellent troupe, but that creation turns out to involve murders and perhaps other violent acts (the degree to which these are specified appears to be an ongoing experiment), as well as the grotesque exhibits of stillborns, who can still be “useful.”

In the performances I saw of that show, Crawdaddy (played by James Griffiths of the San Francisco Mime Troupe) was a dominant and sometimes threatening personality, despite being barely ambulatory due to his grotesque crab tail and feet. His marriage with Veronica, the Fat Lady was interdependent with their attempts to take and then keep control of their freak show, which often involved murdering other freaks, including Crawdaddy’s father.
But there was surprising tenderness in their relationship, and in Veronica’s struggle to have children (stillborns that she justified keeping in jars as part of the show), and then in their family feeling when Veronica gave birth to Siamese twins, Lily (Esther Haddad) and Heather (Zuzka Sabata.) The two girls, writhing in each other’s permanent embrace, were lively and real, and of course part of the freak show, playing odd and haunting melodies on saxophone and violin.

 Through dialogue and Crawdaddy’s monologues, and particularly the stories told by the vaguely sinister puppet, GW Willikers (the voice of David Ferney), more of the family drama was revealed, always returning to the particular culture of freaks in freak shows, as well as the permeable definitions yet ironclad realities of freakishness and normality. So when one of the girls fell in love with the dim but otherwise “normal” janitor, Val (Tyler Olsen), the mood alternated quickly between acceptance and menace.

 The mood was captured by a story the puppet told with pride and nostalgia about his father’s job testing out the wringers of washing machines by getting wrung through them, and popping back to normal size afterwards. The assembly line as freak show suggested another riff on economic dependence at the edge of existence.

 The essence of a freak show—of the need to satisfy the entertainment desires of normal folk with freakishness and freakish behavior—was a unifying theme, and just how this affected the family was often demonstrated in how many coins and bills showered the stage from the darkness around it. When survival was again threatened, Crawdaddy devised a one-time-only showstopper, the chainsaw separation of his daughters, which ended predictably in their deaths.

In his last soliloquy, Crawdaddy refused to be judged, judging instead his audience and the darkness within human nature which he shared and reflected. Together with the music and bizarre comedy, this was an edgy evening, and with themes shared with Shakespeare and especially Greek drama, it certainly was in the neighborhood of the tragedy in its title.

 The most unexpected element of this show, and the one that most impressed me at the rehearsal, was the central story of a family. The play begins with Crawdaddy telling about a hard lesson his father taught him as a child. Then the relationship between Crawdaddy and Veronica develops, and leads (after several stillborns) to the twins, who appear to be literally joined at the hip. I was taken with Veronica’s innocence and her powerful maternal feelings, and especially the performances of Sabata and Haddad as the twins, literally quivering with life and energy, two girls becoming young women.

 The courtship of one of the twins by Val, the somewhat dimwitted young man who sweeps up after the show, provides humor, vitality and then a sexual tension running between innocence and perversity. Perhaps it was additional makeup and Dandenau’s necessary restraint, or maybe just because I was sitting farther from the stage, but on opening night even these scenes seemed darker, less “human,” whatever that may mean in this context. And the play certainly gets very dark later.

Without giving more of the story away, this darkness brings to a climax another central theme: the identity and morality of the characters and their world, in relation to the audience. How does the audience define them, even to themselves? In starkly reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet # 121, Crawdaddy echoes the God of the Old Testament, as well as St. Paul, the poet Wyatt and of course the poet Popeye, in asserting, “I am who I am.” Yet he justifies his evil in the eyes of observers: “All men are bad and in their badness reign.”

But is that reality, or denial and evil itself? In the end I was struck by how much these “freaks” resemble the freakish gods of the Greeks, especially in their grotesque family relationships. I’ve just started reading Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, and I was intrigued by her suggestion that the Greek myths of gods who murder, rape and torture each other, present a family model that was more perverse and tragic than any in nearby civilizations, and this may have been a product of the preceding “dark age”-- four centuries of chaos and privation.

 This in turn focuses something I noted about “Crawdaddy.” Though the Dell’Arte press release said it takes place in the 1930s, I detected no indication of time or circumstance or any outside world in the production itself. I wonder if that is an avenue yet to be explored. In any case, this piece has extraordinary potential, and it may do extraordinary things.

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