Dallas — What is grotesque? Are people born with monstrous deformations grotesque? Or are the people who neglect, disown, hide, exploit, or abuse these cursed souls the truly despicable ones? Audacity Theatre Lab's production of Andy Eninger's The Last Castrato, at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, cedes the floor to Joseph (Jeff Swearingen), a man born without his “manhood,” as here counts his life, his crime and a tragic love doomed.
Joseph arrives for his parole hearing, haphazardly dragging two large suitcases with him. He addresses the parole board, played by the audience, by telling the story that led to a crime that remains as yet unspoken. Born without genitals to a mother who died in childbirth, Joseph is shipped away from home by his father, eventually landing in a special school in Paris for savants. However, there is nothing special about Joseph, save for having no-thing. A misunderstanding placed him in the path of destiny.
At the school, Joseph meets Elena, a woman born inside-out, her skin on the inside and organs on the outside. She's kept alive by a special machine encased in a box around her body. Her head is covered save for one good eye which can peek out to the world. Despite this, Elena is a world class singer. The two fall in love. It's a love they can never pursue past a certain point. Consummation is impossible, just as any semblance of a normal life. Upon graduation, Elena is hidden away by her parents and Joseph struggles to make ends meet.
Eventually, Joseph's love for Elena begets a plan. Joseph will pose as a Castrato singer, synching his lips in public performances to an offstage Elena actually singing the music. While successful at first, things fall apart and the two venture in their own tragic directions. But Joseph's love remains and leads to the crime and a bittersweet end.
The piece is a monologue, so all the responsibility falls on Swearingen's shoulders in this performance. And unlike the character he plays, Swearingen proves himself supremely talented. Employing various props and endless illustrative gestures, he is able to tell the story without ever letting the sheer absurdity of it overwhelm his performance.
This is a particular talent of both Swearingen and director Brad McEntire. Few could handle the frenetic and desperate Joseph, particularly in the physical action of the piece. Swearingen's presence is engrossing, and his commitment to the demands of telling, and acting, the story, sells it in a way that draws the audience in, able to evoke laughter in one moment, and empathetic tears in the next.
Joseph and Elena may be physically deformed, but their love is beautiful. And they find it despite the rest of the world trying to stand in their way. Swearingen makes Joseph, despite lacking the requisite equipment, more human than any of the men portrayed in his story. And that's what makes the end that much more heart-wrenching.
Humanity is a noun, but it's also a contested subjective term. As is love. In Joseph those concepts are stretched to their very limits, and in the dark crevices of the world where the outcasts linger, they are realized fully.
» The YOLO Solo Festival will be performed in the second week of this production, with eight short solo plays presented before and after The Last Castrato. See more about the festival here