Freaks, Sweetback Productions, at Frankie J’s MethaDome Theatre. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks was too personal and extreme for its time and effectively sank him in Hollywood, though it was later recognized as his masterpiece. Sweetback’s “revisionist adaptation” creates a different paradox: director and company cofounder Kelly Anchors has thrown her heart into the production as she strives to construct a similarly personal statement, but she ultimately remains an enigma, as does Browning. The confused script, which may have passed through too many hands, must be called an intriguing, ambitious failure.
This Freaks alternates between parody of the film and fragmentary scenes portraying a Browning figure, an alcoholic consigned to an institution along with a gang of mentally ill curiosities. Anchors’s jaw-dropping program note says this ongoing diptych is a metaphor for manic depression–specifically her manic depression–with the carnival scenes representing grandiose mania, the others its bleak opposite. It’s hard to say whether this quite comes across–or is appropriate as entertainment–but the filmic narrative is marvelous, with special credit due to the cast’s well-researched, considered, yet colorful characterizations. The institution scenes, however, don’t develop, at least not intelligibly, so all the crosscutting seems a waste of time.
And then there’s the grisly ending, which differs significantly from the film’s. Though striking and perversely logical, it feels tacked on and somewhat pat–but then the same criticism is often leveled at Browning’s gruesome finale, which has nevertheless become the movie’s emblem. So it’s possible that Anchors knows what she’s doing.