Theatrical spectacle often refers to visual elements that become the most memorable and talked-about aspect of a production. Say, a massive chandelier that plummets above the audience and onto the stage. Sometimes, to the detriment of the narrative (or because of a shoddy story), it's the only reason to see something.
In better case scenarios, spectacle complements storytelling; becomes part of it. Life-sized equine puppets, for instance.
So is it spectacle if you can't see it?
In the case of Shaun Prendergast's play The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, the device of darkness—as in pitch black, no-light-for-the-entire-time—becomes the spectacle.
The play received its American premiere in 2003 by a newish, scrappy outfit then called Amphibian Productions, and is one of the shows that put them on the local arts map. So it's fitting that the producers of Amphibian Stage Productions, as it is now named, have chosen the play to open their handsome new home on the South Main Corridor of Fort Worth's Near Southside.
The 2003 production was notable for being an event, the novelty of a play performed entirely in the dark. The same could be said of this new production, except this time, it's even more worth your time.
As suggested in the title, the play tells the real-life story of Mexican woman Julia Pastrana, who in the 19th century became a worldwide circus sideshow sensation because of her hirsute body and ape-like facial features. In the play, which is directed by ASP co-founder Jonathan Fielding, Julia (played by Jessica Vera) describes herself, but with the audience not able to see her, we have to take her word for it.
As we do for everything.
That's where Prendergast's gambit pays off. By taking away one of the major senses—sight—the others are heightened. The main beneficiary of this, of course, is hearing. The descriptions in the text are vivid, and the sound design (by David Lanza) adds to the event of a traveling circus with noises of trains, animals, crowds, crickets and various goings in the next tent over.
However, that sensory wonder known as imagination is what this show heightens most of all.
We can imagine with Julia looks like, but with Vera's fragile voice, the contrast between what we're told and what we feel is striking. Based on voice, we also get a pretty good idea about the circus manager, Lent (Bob Hess), a character called the Countess (Mary Lang), and others played by Brandon J. Murphy and Chandler Smith (all five actors voice multiple roles). You can't see them act, but you get the emotional effects from it—which is what good acting should be like even in lit productions.
The audience chamber in Amphibian's new home is a black box space, similar in size to its former home at the Sanders Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. This time, the chairs are arranged in rows that form a perfect circle, with six aisles dissecting the circle and converging with a playing space in the center. The action and sonic activity happens around and in the audience. (How they know where to go, with no tape on the floor or any light at all to guide them, is a bit of theatrical ingenuity that I won't spoil for you, and you won't know unless someone explains it to you you later.)
Although the actors don't touch the patrons, you might feel, or think you feel, their breath—or the breathing of fellow theatergoers. In 2003, when it was staged in the Texas Christian University Studio Theatre, everyone in the audience faced one direction, sitting under a burlap tent. This time the tent is suggested (which you only see when you enter the theater and when the lights come on at the end).
Also with that first production, the director decided to let the audience see the first few minutes in partial light, so that we could make out silhouettes of the performers (one of those was Fielding, who now directs). The playwright didn't approve of that choice, and changed his script to stipulate that it must be done completely in the dark. After seeing it a second time, I agree that it works better with no visual insight at all.
Before curtain, groups of patrons are gathered into an area between the lobby and theater and given basic instructions (such as what to do in case of emergency) and told the pre-show basics about silencing cell phones and no texting, which would be especially distracting in a show where you really can't see your own hand in front of your face. It's reminiscent of entering a haunted house at Halloween, where groups of people taken through the tour intermittently.
Unless you're claustrophobic or extra skittish, though, there is no such spooking on this tour. The pay-off is a story, performances and, ultimately, an experience that'll you remember for the rest of your life, despite the lack of visual references.
Considering the concept, it's not right to call this a must-see. Instead, think of it as must-feel theater.
◊ Click here to read more about Amphibian Stage Productions and their new home.