Saturday, November 3, 2012
Theater review: The True History of The Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana - The Ugliest Woman in The World at Berlene T. and Jarrell R. Milburn Theatre
Get ready for a production that will stimulate your senses ... well, all but your sight.
FORT WORTH Creativity, when attached to a deep valued message, can be quite the reward for any theater audience. The True History of The Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana - The Ugliest Woman in The World as presented by Amphibian Productions gave an imaginative experience that enabled the audience to step outside of the realm of typical theater and experience a world that goes much beyond what the eyes can perceive.
This piece of theater was provocative in nature and seemingly aimed to tell the story in utter darkness. After entering the venue itself, the audience members were brought into the theater space in small groups by an attendant. This process was very intriguing. The mood of the atmosphere was well exhibited as an attendant gave a quick and informative disclaimer.
Thereafter, the attendant warmly ushered my group to our seats. The arena-style seating yielded several aisles with visible light coming from a light bulb hung above the center of the stage. The aisles also housed a sequence of burlap curtains that draped down above the walkways. No props were visible and the eerie swamp-like sound ambiance gave a real sense of curiosity. To my surprise, I found this minimalist design to be an excellent mood enhancer as the entire experience sent a chill through my spine in anticipation.
The show began on time as the final audience group was led to their seats. The single light bulb flickering on and off to signal the start of the show surprised me. Again, I found myself slowly shifting to the edge of my seat until moments before the show began. As the lights dimmed to black, I quickly found myself sitting in complete darkness awaiting the next light cue. The anticipation was well built when the powerful, colorful vocality of the ensemble cast sprang to life, still on a completely lightless stage.
Julia Pastrana, played by actress Jessica Vera, is a real historical figure who was known as being “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” The direction behind this show was superb in design. Instead of using makeup to try and recreate The Ugliest Woman in the World, as might be expected, the entire show was performed in pitch black. This limited the audience’s key perceptive tool, vision. The design elements of the world are created by the audience’s individual mind. The use of personal imagination to decipher a story was beautifully accentuated by the actors’ voices and sound effects. One fine example of this was when Julia Pastrana’s voice fluttered about beautifully, and then next thing, the scene abruptly changes. One minute you hear the beautiful melodies created by The Ugliest Woman in the World, and the next minute a train is whizzing behind your seats. This transportation of the audience into the realm of the characters was executed very smoothly. No transition seemed out of place and each kept the high pace momentum of the intriguing plot.
This production as a whole had a truly talented ensemble cast in regards to the unique nature of the performance. Each actor played their part vocally and utilized props off stage to create the detailed world in which they lived. The male lead, Lent, played by Bob Hess, started off the show with a bang. His voice effortlessly gathered the whole audience’s attention. Lent, Julia’s husband and manager, did a fine job at stimulating their senses, outside of vision. This gave aid to the individual imagination as the plot progressed. Having the ensemble shout things from all around the stage and amongst the audience really allowed one to accept the conventions of the play.
One of the most chilling parts of the show was when Julia Pastrana was first introduced. Her voice was soft and lovely, but every time another character saw her for the first time there was always a pause of eerie, cool silence before they echoed in unison, “Poor woman.” Each time she was introduced this would reoccur, each time more chilling than the next. At the same time, however, it isolated the audience to a point that they might question the contradictory nature of what was occurring. For instance, Julia had a voice that sounded like honey to the ears; a seemingly unfit trait for The Ugliest Woman in the World.
As the plot unfolded, Julia Pastrana is exhibited before a woman, The Countess, played by Mary Lang. This was one of the first major changes in the show as The Countess shows Julia the first glimpse of true kindness, and what one would call basic humanity. Lang’s voice really embodied the character of The Countess as a woman of authority, but also of true concern for this poor woman. It was her kindness that even allowed Vera’s character to truly understand the changes a woman’s body goes through, something so basic, a natural lesson passed down from mother to daughter was here passed down by a complete stranger. But the softness in Lang’s voice made you feel for a moment that it was her daughter.
As Julia’s story spirals to her untimely and tragic end, you really heard the time progression as Vera not only ages in years but also vocally from a naive youth to a young woman, but with years of wisdom of how cruel this world can truly be.
After Julia’s death was when Bob Hess’s portrayal of Lent really started to shine. It was here that you started to hear his breakdown into madness. Hess’s vocal quality each time he started to lose it more and more became increasingly frantic and irrational. As he was haunted by Julia’s voice and promise, which he never made true on, Hess’s voice was on the brink of madness. The vocal quality could not help but make you see the imagery so clearly in your head that you really believed that you weren’t in the pitch black. Rather you felt as if you were truly sneaking a peek inside the tragic lives of these people.
The show’s message was also very thought-provoking. Instead of treating Julia like the human being she was, she has been forever made an exhibition piece, even to this day. This particular performance did an excellent job at leaving the audience to question the human condition. Who are we individually within our own culture? How far can we invade the personal lives of others and put them on display? Are they just another animal to be watched?
I recommend Amphibian Stage Productions’ The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana - The Ugliest Woman the The World to anyone looking for a unique theater experience blended with a detailed atmosphere and the opportunity to think outside of the norm.
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