Geek Love

Theater for the Age of Gold

at the Lunar Cabaret

Something Made Up

at the Lunar Cabaret

Chameleon With a Stigmata

at the Lunar Cabaret

By Kelly Kleiman

Attending a festival of original theater works is like being treated in a teaching hospital: you’re likely to encounter both brilliant innovation and novices’ mistakes. Even more disquieting, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Demonstrating an extraordinary openness to the unusual, Curious Theatre Branch’s 11th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival offers a range of works, some of which hit the mark while others go far afield and/or leave you wondering whether you’re missing something.

The Rhino Fest opened with Geek Love, Theater for the Age of Gold’s musical adaptation of the cult novel about a family of circus freaks. I can’t assess the faithfulness of the adaptation since I haven’t read Katherine Dunn’s book, but the play all too faithfully presents a version of the world that’s rank, pointless, and repulsive. From the cacophonous entrance music to the hideous paper sunflowers decorating the stage, this production is designed from the start to make your skin crawl. Each of the gruesome puppets, manipulated by Eric Emert, displays his fingers through its mouth hole, producing both a disgustingly realistic tongue and nervous laughter in the audience.

The piece begins with one of these puppets berating us in the voice of cocreator Jeff Dorchen: “What are you doing here?” This is Artie, the fish-boy son of a circus family whose father grew tired of breeding roses and began to breed freaks instead. Artie, who lives in an aquarium, expresses his hatred of everyone by leading a cult that ritually amputates the limbs of “normal” people, who apparently volunteer. (Playing the Transmigrating Narrative Identity, Amy Warren says, “The normal is always to be pitied somehow.”) The violence escalates from there, as we learn in song, narrative, and slide show how Artie masterminds the rape of his sisters, conjoined twins, followed by the beheading of one of them and cannibalistic consumption of the remains.

Warren’s voice and presence carry the show: she also plays Artie’s mother–who began the family tradition of amputation by performing as a geek, biting the heads off chickens–and Artie’s shapeless sister Olympia, who’s impregnated by him and gives birth to a beautiful daughter marred (or distinguished) by a tail. Dorchen and cocreator Jeff Kowalkowski also give charming vocal performances, and the music–strongly backed by Dorchen on banjo, Kowalkowski on keyboard, and Jen Paulson on viola–is appropriately eerie but accessible.

These sounds make a vivid contrast to the ghastly visuals: the puppetry is supplemented by slides of old circus posters, mutilated bodies, and crudely sexual sketches of the kind that appear on bathroom walls. Cheesiness is celebrated everywhere, from the awkward box with torn black strips “concealing” the puppeteer’s hands to the mobile painted backdrop of exaggerated figures, through whose cutout faces Warren pokes her head when she plays the matriarch, looking like any boardwalk shill posing for a gag picture. A cheesy setup for a piece about a cheesy carnival: very good. Or is it? The rawness of the piece could have been less a statement of artistic vision than the result of lack of preparation.

In either case, the question remains whether investing so much talent and creativity in this source constitutes an innovation or a mistake. At the very least, fans of the book (or of the 1947 Tyrone Power movie Nightmare Alley, another homage to the transformative power of “the freak”) will want to see Geek Love. You may argue about it, but you can’t dismiss it.

After the overripeness and clutter of the Geek Love stage, it was a relief to see the relative bareness–a blanket spread out, a circle of books–for Barrie Cole’s Something Made Up. And after Geek Love’s multiple mutilations, a child’s pretense of amputation by repeatedly concealing and displaying her arm while yelling “boom!” seems fairly benign.

But in fact this piece is less satisfactory than Geek Love precisely because of that child. Cole does offer an interesting meditation, however, on a couple’s relationship to each other and to reality. The Shaman (Doug Stapleton) is a sulky, self-deluding character in a monk’s robe who keeps threatening to get high on oregano but never actually puffs, while the Woman (Julie Caffey) sits inside a barricade of books reading a volume on ventriloquism and trying to prevent the Shaman from speaking for himself. When the Girl (Cole) appears, she acts as a catalyst on these two people, who move from one means of coping to another. This is one of the Seven Great Plots of the World–a stranger comes to town–but as played by Cole, the Girl is a one-note shriek for attention, distracting us from Stapleton and Caffey, who are both terrific and whose characters we care about.

Again: Is this intentional or is it an error? Are we supposed to find the Girl as irritating as the Woman does? After all, that irritation is what moves the Woman from her self-imposed prison over to the Shaman’s blanket. Or is the Girl necessary only to make the point that the Shaman and the Woman–a man wearing a dress and a woman wearing pants–are one, a hermaphrodite, a unit, maybe even a family?

Cole provides her characters with some funny lines, like the Woman’s observation that a book is the essence of its author, “like frozen juice.” But she tries our patience not only with her portrayal of the Girl but with the leisurely telling of stories that go nowhere. Though the production has been well paced and thoughtfully directed by Eric Ziegenhagen, ultimately the play’s comedy, insight, and two top-notch performances don’t quite come together. It’s as if something’s been only half made up.

For brilliant innovation the piece to see is Sue Cargill’s Chameleon With a Stigmata, given a superb production by director Anna C. Bahow. The premise sounds excessively high concept: What happens when a woman who can’t stand out meets a lizard that can’t blend in? But the piece turns out to be a sharply funny, intelligent, and oddly sweet examination of the difference between accepting suffering and courting it and of the role of friendship in defining that boundary. Mitzi (the serenely goofy Kathleen Powers) rents an apartment to Alice (the extraordinary Amy Warren again), a McDonald’s clerk so defeated she’s almost invisible. The apartment is already tenanted by the overly visible Ned, a chameleon stuck on red.

Identifying with Jesus, Ned–played by Danne W. Taylor with a combination of insight and doltishness, affection and petulance, so perfect that he could rent himself out as the ideal pet–looks forward to Good Friday and some serious time on the cross to restore his ability to change. But as the disconsolate Alice observes, “Every day is Good Friday if you work in fast food.” Eventually she blossoms, however, with no help more otherworldly than Ned’s and Mitzi’s friendship and her own dawning sense of being able to reciprocate.

No shorthand can do Chameleon justice. Its originality deserves the widest possible audience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Ziefenhagen.