Thursday, May 16, 2019

"A History of Freaks"

A History of Freaks
Katie May

Steven Westdahl & Elena Wright
Like millions of kids before her, as soon as Claire went to her first circus as a kid, she dreamed of running away someday to be on the road with the clowns, the animal trainers, and the trapeze artists.  Even as a PhD candidate when she became an avowed “researcher” for life– “I study everything and nothing” – she still could not help reading books about circuses.  It was while reading such a book on campus that a good-natured, big smiling guy named Joey stopped to tell her, “I was, I am a clown” and “I grew up in a circus.” 

Their immediate attraction leads Claire to join now-college-graduate Joey as he returns to his former life at Stromboli’s Circus where Claire thinks she will now do what she does best – observing – and where Joey thinks he will spend the rest of his life.  In Katie May’s A History of Freaks – now in world premiere as part of Playgrounds 2019 Festival of New Works – both are in for major awakenings as they each realize their true desires and destinies after opening their eyes and ears to a bearded, fire-eating lady and a once-conjoined twin, now tight-rope walker.

Wanting “to write a book about traveling circuses in the modern era,” Claire does her best to remain a bit standoffish and reserved as she arrives with Joey at the troupe’s current stop in a Midwest, non-distinct town.  Reaction to her is fairly universal: How can she stay with us because “she doesn’t have an act?”  But Claire is now clearly Joey’s girl; and Joey – whose dad worked with the circus his entire life after Joey’s mom escaped once Joey was born – is the heir apparent now to run the circus.  That designation is at least true in his mind and that of Eve, the now-deceased owner’s daughter whose sister, Ava, Joey was supposed to marry before her tragic death on the operating table.  Eve now is elated to see that Joey has come back in order to relieve her the responsibility of running the circus alone; she is even more ecstatic in her hope that he loves her like he once loved her other half, Ava.

But Joey’s return is full of surprises for both he and Eve.  First for Eve, there is this Claire, with whom Joey is staying in her 1975 Winnebago.  Second for Joey, the circus is almost bankrupt; the next three towns have pulled their permits for their performances; and the ‘freaks’ who were always relegated to the sideshow are now the main ring’s opening act – including bearded Sabine whom he discovers is also sexually entertaining after each show curious and horny blokes, town after town. 

In return, Eve, Saline, and the rest of the circus performers are about to receive their own big and totally unwelcome surprise.  Joey plans to end the days of trunks and tents, taking the circus off road once he finds a “warehouse space” in some tourist-rich city for a permanent home – a decision further received with disgust when he announces that there will be no more freaks in the new arena’s center ring.

Patrick Russell, Sean Garahan & Stephanie Prentice
As Joey, Patrick Russell at times cannot help but go into his old routines as a clown as he tells a story or recounts memories; but his Joey is also anything but funny in his intense seriousness as he plots how to save the circus.  He has that twenty-something, somewhat cocky confidence that he is right; yet at the same time, he shows a vulnerable streak of uncertainty about what he really wants both for himself and for the circus.  In the course of recalling memories, confronting deep sources of guilt, and attempting to rekindle a zeal for the circus that he assumes is naturally in his blood, Patrick Russell as Joey impressively displays a wide range of emotional acumen from silly to fearful to angry to deeply regretful.  But in the end, what his Joey is seeking is a life that is “comforting,” and that search leads him toward a destination unexpected.

As it turns out, Claire too is seeking a destination and life that is “comforting” – a word oft repeated in Katie May’s smartly conceived script.  Claire believes playing the somewhat detached researcher is where it is at, but sitting with a deck of Tarot cards in front of her leads her to discoveries of a world for herself that she did not know existed.  Her extensive knowledge of circus history which she shares with her new friends magically opens up new pages in her always present notebook – pages on which rather than just recording observations, she begins to recreate herself.  Laura Espino begins her portrayal of Claire as a young woman with little, outward emotional breadth or noticeable reaction who seems quite willing to stay more in Joey’s and the circus’s shadows.  However, bit-by-bit her Claire transforms into a strong driver of her own, new journey – independent and sure of her own, new-found ‘act’ in the world of circus.

But neither Joey nor Claire sees their new possibilities without the interventions of the circus family around them.  Elena Wright is singularly stunning as the surviving half of the conjoined twins who once walked with her sister together on parallel tightropes – the two joined in a co-owned liver.  Her sister, Ava, is still very much part of her life in ways Elena Wright convinces us are totally real.  While her Eva can enter in states of other-worldly trance as she heads up the high, unprotected rigging to perform her magic, Eva has both feet firmly on the ground in her determined passion for the circus and its future – maybe a love that matches or even surpasses the passion she has for Joey.  That intertwined love for both circus and Joey leads her to decisions no one else can predict.

Key to Claire’s eventual life ‘ah-ha’ is Sabine, maybe the evening’s most arresting, most captivating performance.  Stephanie Prentice is a strong-minded, strong-willed Sabine who is not about to be run-over or run-out by this returning, so-called college whiz, Joey, whom everyone else seems to hold in such endearment.  Her bearded lady speaks with a high, feminine voice that belies her no-holes-barred willingness to speak up, to resist, and to bow down to no one.  But she also has a heart bigger than the big top when it comes to those most-often ignored in the circus world and even – after some early, big-time skepticism – for this new arrival she addresses as “College Girl” and whom she clairvoyantly sees as key for this circus’s future success.

Steven Westdahl, Elana Wright & Sean Garahan
Rounding out both this excellent cast and the circus members we meet are Solomon (Sean Garahan) as the sword-swallowing clown and Ron (Steven Westdahl) as the former animal trainer (losing his beloved four-legged friends to dipping resources, rising costs of meat, and the mounting pressures of animal rights protesters).  Sol often moves around in perpetual clown-mode in a quiet kind of Emmett Kelley style, but he is far from clowning in his ability to give wise advice or to stand up for what he believes is fair and right for others.  Ron is seeking to reinvent himself and find his new act and plays a cross between a clumsy but lovable buffoon and a crusty giant of a guy who goes back and forth between tough guy and teddy bear.

Doyle Ott directs the two-hour, two-act, and multi-scene unfolding of both real-time realities and fantastical imaginings – the latter sometimes clownishly funny and sometimes dreamily serious.  Enabling the director and cast immensely are the wonderfully creative and circus-effecting costumes of Jess McGovern.  Scenes run in parallel at times, with one line leading into another in the opposing scene or with even lines co-spoken.  Transitions run overall smoothly, with only some minor, opening-night awkwardness of June Palladino’s property and Sarah Phykitt’s scenic entrances and exits on the otherwise bare stage.  Inclusions of Steven Westdahl’s becoming an occasional sideshow barker in between scenes are more intrusive and loud than script-enhancing while both an opening and closing center-ring announcement of another night’s performance are frankly just too long and cliché-ridden to be interesting.

However, those nitpicks are minor in the grand scheme of the evening – especially for a new work in its first, fully staged outing.  Both the Playground cast and creative team as well as  playwright Katie May are to be richly congratulated for a story that mixes interesting history lessons of circuses, an intriguing storyline with a number of twists and turns through a maze of secrets, and an important reminder that there is a little of freak to be recognized in us all.

Rating: 4 E

A History of Freaks continues as part of Playground’s 2019 New Works Festival, playing on the following times and dates: 8 p.m. May 30 and 31; 8 p.m. June 1, 8, and 9 (and also 2 p.m. June 9).  Performances are at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

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