Who hides inside our skins?
What lives beneath the surfaces we can see?
And how do we summon — or reveal — that mystery?
These concerns animate Circus Ugly, a surrealistic peek through the fourth wall into the lives of … freaks? Well, perhaps. People who are physically unusual, anyway, and who live in and around a nightclub where some of them perform as strippers.
We enter this world via a trash-lined hovel where Neto, a shy young man with one deformed hand, pursues his passion for painting. The extraverted, energetic Adrian bounces in, bringing supplies and menace; he disappears. Then a young woman wanders in, searching for something; her skin is made of exfoliating layers of paper — the result, she says, of her father mating with a tree.
The one-armed painter and the girl with paper skin gingerly move toward a relationship; he shares his pad, she tries to aid his art. As Neto paints, he repeats the tale of his mother dying in the fiery crash that disfigured his arm; meanwhile, a woman dances through the curtained back wall, chiding and encouraging him like a conscience.
This world’s other location is an office/dressing room where Adrian and his boss, a bearded lady dwarf, run the strip club. They assume everyone is a freak, and has a price, and will end up performing for them. Neto and the paper-skinned girl try to resist this fate, while he seeks redemption and she looks for her mother.
Like any play, Circus Ugly is meant to be lived through, not read. So I’ll leave telling the story to the actors, who do it admirably.
As paper girl, Bianca Lemaire creates an instantly winning persona and drives the tale with her energy, carrying us with her (as she did in last year’s Bulrusher) while displaying a range of colors. David Huynh makes Neto’s anguish physical, a visceral demon that twists him and discomforts us; he almost renders the shadow woman (his angst’s external form) redundant.
But Anita Dashiell-Sparks gives the specter a leering intimacy that’s skin-crawlingly familiar; and later, her lap-dancing hedonist Grace makes the strip show as compelling as its owners say it is. In Adrian, Ross Gallo stirs a Puck-like mix of impish charm and servile cruelty. And bearded impresario Ann Colby Stocking juggles a fistful of qualities — sexual power, cynical charm, an unnamed wistfulness, wit, empathy, rage — all flickering at once like the tongues of a fire.
The technical artists are also adept. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set evokes a desperate confusion, Justin Huen’s light design joins gaiety with garishness in persistent shadow, and Cricket S. Myers’
soundscape subliminally sustains the world. Costumer Mylette Nora meets stunning challenges with style, and video designer Naomi Bennett’s fluid projections become a living character in the story.
Jon Lawrence Rivera has a sure, quiet directorial hand, letting actors be still and moving them with meaning. Even the scene changes add to the story, hinting that these folks make the world they inhabit.
As fine as all this is, Circus Ugly feels incomplete to me; and the issues lie mostly in the writer’s domain. Three problems that seem like mere niggles are persistent and, I think, ultimately weaken our hold on the story.
The first is the title. It denotes an extreme of ugliness; but there’s no circus here. Instead, there‘s a freak show of a very different kind. And while owning your “ugly” and making it “sexy” is a main theme, this title doesn’t take us there. It misleads us.
Second, the main character is anonymous. We only know her as “the girl with paper skin,” and hear her name so seldom I didn’t recognize it in the program. She (and other characters) could be made to use her name — or the title could be changed to The Girl with Paper Skin, solving both problems at once.
This would also solve a third problem: We can’t tell by looking at it that her “skin” is paper. No costume, however clever, can be relied on to convey that. So we assume her clothes are unusually ragged. If we knew about her skin from the top, we’d see what we’re meant to see.
A final problem lies deeper. Neto’s struggle to find and confront what really happened to his mother, and the girl’s quest to find and confront her mother, are both about discovering the reality hidden by an accepted story. (Which neatly parallels and supports the theme of finding the person underneath one’s perceived surface.)
But in the final moment, the girl seems to be encouraged to spin a new fiction to cover the truth she has finally found. If this is so, it is a major shift — contradicting the play’s other themes — and can’t be left until a few seconds before the curtain. If this reversal is not what’s meant, the ending scene needs a rewrite.
Gabriel Rivas Gomez has been writing Circus Ugly for several years, nurtured by the unique support of Playwrights’ Arena. I hope it gets further fine tuning, but it’s already a strong, disturbing play, and the Arena is giving a powerful premiere.
Circus Ugly, by Gabriel Rivas Gomez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave.
Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00, Mondays at 7:00, thru May 25th.
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