Fort Worth — In 2003 and again in 2012, when Amphibian Stage produced Shaun Prendergast’s performed-entirely-in-the-dark play The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, the audience could vividly imagine the characters, their costumes and the setting. In both productions, despite the fact that the actors wouldn’t be seen and the sole lighting design cue was "turn off lifghts," there were still 19th-century period-appropriate costumes actually worn by the performers. (In the 2003 production, its U.S. premiere performed at Texas Christian University, the director chose to show the actors for a few minutes in the prologue, before the lights went off, a choice that the playwright reportedly hated. In 2012, which opened the Phibs’ current theater, the darkness was consistent, save for the emergency exit signs; we didn’t see the actors until curtain call.)
Now here we are, in the darkest days of 2020, and Amphibian is again doing the show — based on the true story of a 19th-century Mexican woman born covered in hair and with enlarged facial features who was exhibited as a sideshow attraction around the world — but in a different format: a radio play streaming via Vimeo. The theater’s original four-show season, which was to include three world premieres (the first, in February, was produced) has been upended because of the coronavirus. For a play performed in darkness, this format makes sense. This time the actors aren’t wearing costumes, as we can see in the “making of” videos that have been part of the group’s marketing campaign (see video below). They wore masks when entering the theater and social distanced and were confined to curtained-off booths for the recording, with most rehearsals happening via video conferencing.
Once again, the listener feels surrounded by the action. We can hear, feel, and almost smell the atmosphere of a carnival sideshow in the opening and many of scenes. This is due to the actors’ distinctive voice work, of course, but mostly to David Lanza’s sound design, which uses Dolby Atmos technology for a richer surround-sound experience when using headphones. This is the best theatrical sound design achievement in recent memory. Amphibian co-founder and Broadway actor Jonathan Fielding (The Play That Goes Wrong) directs.
It helps if, as suggested, you listen in a dark room with your screen covered. I closed the blinds (it was daylight when I listened), stretched out in a recliner and put on a sleep mask. The experience enriches a play that already relies on auditory senses. The difference between hearing it this way, as opposed to the live production, is that in the latter you could feel the actors moving around you. In this format, you get close to the same experience and, as a bonus, can listen in your quarantine outfit.
Can theater heard by only one person alone in a room be immersive? A resounding yes, this production proves.
If anything, it allows you to focus more on the story. In the live production there are distractions of knowing where the actors are around you, of hearing their footsteps on platforms. Even though you couldn’t see anything, your head swiveled to follow the action. This time, it’s all about the story as told by the voices and mood- and place-setting sounds. A sex scene (Hannah Martinez plays Julia; J.R. Bradford is her husband/manager Lent) and a birth scene are particularly vivid. For me, the latter was more emotionally gripping than when I saw it in those first two productions. Martinez and Bradford are both excellent, as are Mitchell Stephens (Showman), Felicia Bertch (Countess) and Jovane Caamaño (Frazer) — they all play other roles, too.
You don’t need to know the real story to guess the ending. Despite that Julia was incredibly intelligent and well-educated, being exploited because of physical traits doesn’t make for a happy story. Also see African woman Saartjie Baartman, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and “elephant man” Joseph Merrick, all exhibited in circus sideshows — and all of which have had theatrical works created about them.
Dehumanization is often where social injustice begins. No surprise, that dehumanization almost always starts with the patriarchy. Are you listening?
Pastrana’s bones, along with those of her infant, were exhibited long after her death and were eventually placed in a storage locker in Oslo, Norway. Because of Amphibian’s first production, artistic director Kathleen Culebro’s sister, New York-based artist Laura Anderson Barbata, campaigned for 10 years to have Pastrana’s remains repatriated to her birthplace in Sinaola, Mexico, which happened in 2013 (Barbata wrote a book about it, and a one-woman performance that she offered at Amphibian in 2018). Other North Texas groups have staged the show, including Texas Woman’s University in Denton and Lakeside Community Theatre in The Colony.
It’s a powerful story and Prendergast’s concept sets this play apart. The third time for Amphibian is an absolute must. So far, it’s the peak among several high points in recent streaming ventures from North Texas theaters, along with Theatre Three’s The Immigrant, Cry Havoc Theater Company’s Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground, and WaterTower Theatre’s I Am My Own Wife.
Julia Pastrana has been extended, and now streams through Aug. 6. It is available for purchase ($13) here.