Amalia, a woman with no arms or legs, perches atop her pedestal, a coy smile playing upon her face. "You are wondering," she purrs, "if I've ever had sexual intercourse."
Playwright Carson Kreitzer gets Freakshow (HERE) off to a ripping start. She plunges the audience immediately into the intrigues of a turn-of-the-century sideshow tales of freaks born and made, of the genuine article and gaff, of the "shame of exhibition" and the terrible need to be seen. She sketches the liaisons among Amalia; her muck-covered lover Matthew; the idiot Pinhead; Aquaboy, the human salamander; the Girl, a pert runaway; Judith, the dog-faced woman; and Mr. Flip, the operation's unctuous barker, promoter, and paterfamilias.
Kreitzer can create complex characters, such as the lordly, dirty-talking Amalia, and write tender, clever dialogue as when the runaway goes to kiss the begilled, beguiled Aquaboy, and he warns her, quite sadly, "I don't turn into a prince." Her faults lie in her plotting and structure. Kreitzer introduces conflicts, but their resolutions do not advance the drama. She gives the work a playful, episodic form, but finds no way to bring it to a satisfying end.
Happily, Pam Mackinnon's brisk, sympathetic direction and the skills of the ensemble do much to excuse the script's flaws and celebrate its strengths. While all the performances impress, standouts include Lisa Rothe as Judith, Meg MacCary as Amalia, and the marvelous Steven Rattazzi as Mr. Flip the actor never shies away from Mr. Flip's nastier qualities, yet succeeds in making him lucid, almost likable. Even in the case of this insidious showman, Kreitzer proves herself an author of exceptional compassion, everywhere revealing the humanity behind apparent monstrosity. Alexis Soloski
"Let me sing to you like when we were wild, Sister," muses Julia de Burgos (Sol Miranda), drunk and disheveled in a New York apartment in the opening scene of Julia de Burgos, Child of the Water (Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre). The Puerto Rican poet seems embroiled in a catharsis with her long-suffering sibling, but playwright Carmen Rivera has written the role of Woman (Lourdes Martín) as a mirror image of de Burgos not exactly an evil twin, but the creative inner force of the artist. Although this doubling device could be more clearly articulated in the early stages of the play, it ultimately becomes compelling, making its poet subject more universal than her relative obscurity suggests. My favorite of the two portrayals is Miranda's de Burgos she is a pleading, aching, yet fiery creature of finely tuned verse. A Nationalist Party activist and feminist, she suffers through an affair with Juan Grullon (Ricardo Puente), an ineffectual doctor from the Dominican Republic whose bourgeois background makes it unseemly for him to marry her. De Burgos is a country girl with streaks of African and indigenous blood, but she's bright enough to impress San Juan's literary crowd. During an exile in Havana, she meets Chilean master Pablo Neruda (Tony Chiroldes), who counsels her to create out of love, not anger. But just as Miranda's de Burgos and Martín's alter ego battle over idealism and conformity, the dialogue with Neruda reveals another two-sided truth. There are excerpts from 20 of de Burgos's poems scattered throughout the play, some infused with love, some with anger, all simmering with the sublime arrogance and delicate touch that characterize her work. De Burgos's story is, like that of too many Puerto Rican idealists, a sad one but the spirit that emerges from this play is a dazzling ray of light. Ed Morales
What the Dickinson!
"From an early age I knew I wished to wear my hair in one fashion," Deb Margolin's Emily Dickinson informs us primly, "to look ugly and plain and spawn a cottage industry." This early speech sets the tone for Madeleine Olnek's Wild Nights With Emily (WOW Cafe), an often hilarious spoof of the life of the poet, reimagined as a lesbian. Postulating that Dickinson, not really a shy recluse, had a long affair with her brother's wife Susan, Olnek unleashes a cavalcade of characters past and present to narrate and act out Dickinson's biography. Olnek's antic production leapfrogs from impassioned trysts between Emily and Sue, to a present-day Mount Holyoke dean urging parents not to worry about the school's lesbian lunch table, to a bevy of Emily's married lady friends bursting into "No spinster maids, we" a Gilbert and Sullivanstyle ditty. In one of the funnier sequences, a women's studies scholar lectures about gay identity while Emily and Sue are entwined in lusty gymnastics involving as many sexual acts as can be suggested by voluminous skirts and pantaloons in the air.
Margolin's Emily is fabulously unstrung, provoking frequent laughs with her pop-eyed edge of hysteria. She leads a sparkling troupe of eight, including Jones Miller as the cooler, sly Sue and Cynthia Kaplan as Emily's bitchy revisionist literary executor. Olnek directs at a breathless pace, imaginatively varying styles and making the most of Munee Hayes's over-the-top furbelowed costumes. Wild Nights does eventually meander and repeat itself, and Olnek might have satirically vandalized Dickinson's poems a bit more. Still, you won't soon forget her wickedly salacious spin on "I taste a liquor never brewed." Francine Russo
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