By Irene Fogarty
When an attractive, fellow beauty-writer (Erin Williams), revealed she was playing the lead role of the ugliest woman in the world, I was intrigued by the irony of it all. What cosmetic faux-pas could this beauty expert create to make her look ugly? More importantly, why the hell this role? Either way, this would be the opening line of my article and a theatre opportunity not to be missed. Little did I know how the worlds of theatre and beauty-writing could intertwine with such relevance. What I discovered was a play and story that rightly deserves Yeats’ idea of a terrible beauty and much more.
Perhaps the irony starts with its title – The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World. The real-life story of a four and a half-foot tall Mexican woman in the 19th century, who was covered with hair and exploited by her American showman/husband (Lent), as a circus freak. No stranger to the grotesque, its writer, British playwright, Shaun Prendergast, appeared in several of Kenneth Branagh’s films such as Henry V, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is Prendergast’s comfort with the ugly truth of humanity along with the director’s, J.V.Mercanti’s unconventional theatrical quips that make this one-hour experience so startling and hair-raising (no pun intended).
The play is a show itself. A juggling of noises, sounds, smells and mental images of the good, the bad and the ugly of carnival life, human greed and our notion of beauty as we see it today. From the minute you enter the small, intimate theatre room, you can smell the rope of the netting that surrounds you. Somehow you feel like you’re going to become enmeshed in a sideshow of festivities other than the Siegfried-Roy kind. The only beasts here are the human ones.
Just as sideshows were built around illusion and tricking the audience, we too, like the carnival goers, are drawn in by the slap-stick, fast-shooting, step right up salesy language of carnival life. Prendergast’s lyrical script moves as fast as the wheeler-dealer mind of Lent, (played so convincingly by Evan Mueller).
Armless..legless, limbless wonders and a litany of other deformities are listed off as easily as the guy on the street selling Gucci bag rip-offs. But as Lent proclaims, Talk is cheap, he’s got the real McCoy the genuine freak the girl gargoyle herself. Julia Pastrana, the ugliest woman in the world.
As the audience strained their necks to get a good look, we got something else darkness. Total darkness. The curtains are closed on us. This is no blackout, this is theatrical blackmail, and there’s no turning back now. Instead, we hear the comforting sweet Mexican voice of Julia, who describes herself as hideous because of her hair profusion, has an exceedingly good figure, good taste in music and dance, proficient in three languages and gives to local charities.
So the fantastical journey begins. Through the rotating voices around the room, you realize and that show is acted all around the audience by performers who move in absolute confidence through the pitch blackness.
This is the real magic of the play. What we the audience can see through the darkness. And how Predergast and Mercanti. Perhaps this is what fascinated me most. How did these actors practice? Surely they must have bruises from rehearsals or is their night vision better than my Lasik 20/20? If not, how come they move so fluidly, so confidently as if the lights are on? Admitting it as a mere challenge, Mercanti oversaw the cons of the darkness and claims that by using our other sense, we not only hear a play as in Shakespearean times, but also see it in a new light. What’s more, it’s hard to believe that there are only five actors that fill the room. They’re always silently moving around you, in front of you and behind you. Always talking directly to you, at you. And there’s nobody to help you, you’re in the dark, confronted with your soul, just as Lent is near the end.
The darkness becomes an increasingly ingenious device to make us focus on the dark realities of Julia’s life and how we too can be blind to human life situations that surround us everyday. Through the threatening darkness it becomes clear that we become closer to Julia, her pains, as we see her life the way she didin the dark. It also makes us focus on something other than her ugliness the ugliness of those who exploited her for money. And sheds more light on our notions of beauty and what we consider freakish today. We’re faced with issues that we normally chose not to see. As Mercanti reaffirms, freaks and freak shows have fascinated us for centuries and they still do. It’s the same concept between the reality TV shows and Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake? We watch to say “thank God my life isn’t that bad”.
Forget reality shows, your safe world is rocked when Prendergast and Mercanti play God with us. In the depths of Julia’s anguish, the audience feels like they’re stuck in a purgatory where the hellish questions of Julia’s life possess you. Noises of brooms sweeping, hammers pounding, splashing of water, even someone relieving himself, forces us and our imagination into the orgy of carnival life as we’re left to question our own lives through the harrowing, soul-wrenching story of Julia. A woman who simply yearned to fall in love, have a child, own a house and live life. (Isn’t that exactly what Bachelorette Trista always wanted?).
What arises from this murky atmosphere is the fine line between normality and abnormality. We’re forced to ask ourselves who the real freaks are in the world? The ones with physical deformities or the ones who capitalize on them? The Lent’s of the world, the people who exploit others, and do anything for money: All your dreams are bought by it, sold for it, All your hopes are pinned on the pound and the dollar, on the mark, on the lira. Whatever the currency, humanity will sell its soul for money.
It’s been four nights since I saw the Julia show. I’ve had fantastical dreams, thoughts and continual discussions about it. This is how deeply it draws you in. and leaves you begging for answers to human mysterious oddities it made you question. For that alone, I thank and congratulate Shaun Prendergast, the brilliant direction of J.V. Mercanti and his stunningly agile cast, as well as the story of the most beautiful woman in the world, Julia Pastrana.
Now when’s my next waxing appointment?