The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of JULIA PASTRANA the Ugliest Woman in the World
Written by Shaun Prendergast
Directed by Gyda Arber
Part of the sound scape festival
June 13—29, 2013
The Brick Theater, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, USA
A refrain in this play about a real-life carnival “freak” who toured North America and Europe in the mid-1800s is the thankfulness that “she isn’t me,” but everyone, in kindred isolation, could instead be grateful we’re ourselves. And through the simple but commanding device of being performed entirely in the dark — robbing the carnival of its selling point, removing all sense of scope between audience and actors, and restoring some of what was beneath the exterior that gawkers saw of its title character at the time — The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of JULIA PASTRANA the Ugliest Woman in the World causes vivid reflection on how strong surfaces are and how resolutely distance maintains them.
Our bearings as outsiders to the action are abandoned by the lack of relative remoteness from the stage, and the picture painted by the drama is more present than any display since it needs to be conjured on the canvas of our own interiors. This is no “radio-play” exercise in stirring our supposedly media-stunted imaginations; we always participate in the envisioning of a reading from stage-podiums or iPod-speakers, but in this play we are complicit in the attitudes and captive to the ordeals of its characters.
Pastrana, born with a genetic variation that caused her full body to be covered with hair and an extra row of teeth that made her lips protrude, was bought from her mother and exhibited as an ape- or bear-woman; she read and spoke three languages and seems to have been an accomplished performer and engaging personality. Her exhibitor also married her and, when she gave birth to a child and neither long survived, he continued to show them as mummified curiosities.
The play puts us close to the soliloquies of the sensitive and tragically trusting Julia (movingly and unsentimentally played by Irene Menendez); she is solely a surface to the spectators who enrich her exploiters, but even in total darkness we can detect the obvious illusion that defines her life: that her husband, Mr. Lent, loves and admires her; his business depends on a reality that callous carnival-goers only see the outer edge of, and her emotional stability and self-worth depend on a fiction she desperately needs to overlay on the story of her life.
Her midway-tent refuge has the dark comfort of the womb or the ominous isolation of a forsaken forest; we are taken into her confidence and put adrift in the constellation of conflicting motives that surrounds her.
Lent, an eerily predatory, amorally self-justifying personality, is played with terrifying conviction by Michael McKim, declaiming his theories on commerce as the mystic life’s blood of the world and human souls as its currency. A domestic tyrant who thinks he’s a prophet, his sermons do end up seeming like a premonition of our own later era of cheapened labor and lives.
The actors rotate around the audience, constantly reorienting our perception like the real existence we have to negotiate, and the ingenious sound environment by Steve Sabaugh creates depth and texture that makes our experience of the drama feel more full than our witness of any well-designed visual production on a safely distanced stage.
We have only what the characters tell us to go on and only what our senses suggest to guide us, and at one point, when Julia is difficultly giving birth while on tour in Moscow, after we have heard much from Lent spoken to her about who she is, we hear a kind of counternarrative from a nurse, playing angel to his devil (and portrayed with saintly gravity and stony Russian sympathy by Amanda LaPergola), which gives an account of the desolation Julia must feel — though Julia’s own voice is drowned in this competition for what she means.
She herself at least gets asked, once, by a Countess for whom she has been invited to perform, and who is the only person in the entire ensemble to fully engage her as an equal and a being of worth, though the Countess (a brave, heartbreaking performance by Julia Wolfermann) is in her own kind of cage, and the privilege that earns her a private moment with Pastrana keeps an unbridgeable gulf between them.
Rounding out the ensemble are Linus Gelber as a compelling carnival barker who seems to be shilling at the gates of the Inferno, and Ken Simon as a patron in whose bravura dialect-shtick, its own kind of archaic entertainment, we recognize the layers we set in place between what really is and what we think we hear.
Director Gyda Arber is a considered, instinctual master of creating serene clockworks of cacophonous event, tracing the separate orbits of each person’s aspiration and agenda and unrecorded testament. Shaun Prendergast’s script is a dissident classic, performed widely since 1998 and twisting words while unlocking meaning with deep human insight and relentless civic inquiry. No detail is unattended to, with Carolyn Raship’s dynamically current, astutely vintage poster design artfully elevating the one image of Julia we see.
Another of the play’s refrains is its heroine’s desire to “see the world” — and without a single sight, we glimpse almost more truth of that world than it’s bearable to know. But in this vision, Julia’s story gets to be heard, in an honest world as ours still might become. Amidst shadows we can’t hide in, this play is a blessing for what it brings to light.