Dallas — Since Nov. 9, 2016, it has been easy to predict that arts-makers would comment on the political moment through louder art. Among the classic plays that theater artists have revived nationally are Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, absurdist works that are remarkably evocative of the new president. An adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 is on Broadway. Then there’s Julius Caesar, with which New York’s Shakespeare in the Park stirred so much controversy for a Trump-looking title character that outdoor Shakespeare organizations across the country, including Shakespeare Dallas, received death threats.
This year in our area, three original works have been the most pointed in criticism of the current administration and his diehard supporters. Two were at the Festival of Independent Theatres—Audacity Theatre Lab’s adaptation of the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator, and Jeff Swearingen’s The Caveman Play, performed by young adult outfit The Basement. The latter was a sly, clever commentary on pack mentality and some humans’ refusal to believe in discovery, progress and logic.
Cry Havoc Theater Company’s The Great American Sideshow, directed by Mara Richards Bim, doesn’t even try to veil its indictment of 45. A co-production with Kitchen Dog Theater and using KDT’s current home at the Trinity River Arts Center, the devised work was created by teenagers from high schools across the Metroplex.
The setting: a circus sideshow where the freaks include Fortune Teller (Eboni Bolton), Bird Girl (Zephira Zithri Guimbatan), Bearded Lady (Keyshawn Lefall), Strong Man (Frankie Mars), Noodle Man (Luis Matos), Pop Eye (Tilah McGrway), Pin Cushion (Jordan Mercado), Narcoleptic Chameleon (Sheldrick Pearl), Sword Swallower (Zion Reynolds) and conjoined twins Ruth (Regina Juarez) and Ruth Ann (Michelle Ann Marie). Mother (Trinity Gordon) watches out for young acrobat Lily (fourth grader Maren Bennett). Fabian Rodriguez is a Barker.
The floundering freak show is purchased by a man named Otto Baron (the obvious Trump stand-in who is never seen), who sends Narcissa (Valeria Marin) to help whip things into shape. Most hilariously, Baron has a golden bird named Birdie (De’Aveyon Murphy) who has short, hashtag-ready outbursts that begin with a “tweet, tweet” (see our short video above). Journalist (Mary Bandy) tries to get the story and keeps being stifled by Baron and his supporters.
Gee, what could this play be about?
“He bought this failing disaster and will make the sideshow great again,” says one character. “When was the last time this place started winning?” asks another.
If that wasn’t obvious enough, characters refer to alternative facts and #fakenews, their faction not being listened to, taped conversations, and chants of “lock her up” when a character is about to be thrown into a circus cage. Baron says things like “Siamese twins” rather than “conjoined,” and supporters extol him for speaking the truth and “being honest.” Other hot-button topics, such as the transgender bathroom fight, are worked in.
In four years, Cry Havoc hasn’t been afraid to take on newsworthy topics, notably last year’s Dallas police shootings with Shots Fired, which was revived last month; and rape and slut-shaming with Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids. There is nothing subtle about Sideshow, nor does there need to be. These kids are getting a lesson in creating agitprop.
The production looks good (Bart McGeehon’s scenic design, Korey Kent’s costumes, Aaron Johansen’s lighting) and PrismCo.’s Katy Tye designs shadowplay for the circus acts (there could be more of that). The sound of a circus calliope (sound by John M. Flores) is a constant reminder that we’re a world in which the mirror held up to society is of the funhouse variety—and it's extremely warped. Sad.
The ensemble struggles with this one, as it calls for more stylized acting than Cry Havoc has needed in past productions. Lines are rushed and articulation frequently sloppy. Murphy's Birdie is a highlight.
Still, the concept should stick with audiences, even those who aren’t lefties. When the 9-year-old Lily says that Otto scares her, it’s an honest moment that should alarm adults. Fake news doesn't come out of the mouths of babes.