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PURGATORIO - Stolen Shakespeare Guild
CIRCUS TRACKS - Outcry Theatre

WaterTower Theatre

Reviewed Performance: 3/10/2013

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

PURGATORIO By Sriel Dorfman

Directed by Nathan Autrey
Lighting Design - Brandon Camargo

CAST Man - Joey Folsom
Woman - Whitney Holotik

Jason and Madea got divorced. The carnage that followed makes Fatal Attraction look like a fairytale. So what happened next?

Euripides' 431 B.C. poem was extended by Ariel Dorfman to explore Jason and Madea in purgatory. That's the place immortalized by Dante Alighieri where souls contemplate their sins and that's where we find Man and Woman in Purgatorio, the 2013 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival entry from Stolen Shakespeare Company.

Directed by Nathan Autrey, the stage looks like a darkened room in a psych hospital. A bed and a chair is the setting where Man, played by Joey Folsom, and Woman, played by Whitney Holotik, spar like patients and psychologists - interrogating, challenging, often heated, very emotional. The play unfolds in twists that surprise even those who know the original story. It's intense.

Woman, who lived a Madea story, must come to terms with her crimes against her own children and a young princess who could marry her ex-husband. She must find redemption to escape purgatory so she has to describe the murders of her sons to her inquisitor. Holotik gives Madea both a strong emotional base as the witch of the Madea story she was in life, but also explores the full range of emotions a mother could feel describing the deaths of her sons. Woman also plays the psychologist-like character, questioning and challenging Jason, with a mostly monotone style, until it too becomes heated. Is this character someone in Jason's former life, someone he wronged?

Jason, that great warrior of ancient Greece had faults of his own to describe and ended up in purgatory after he committed suicide. Joey Folsom plays Man and his efforts to discover his own redemption for sins he believed he committed, but Folsom also becomes the monotone inquisitor who challenges Woman to describe her murders. Folsom plays this character cool and passionless, but then alternately shifts to the self-loathing Jason. While I missed a lot of his early text as he talked mainly upstage and very fast, I did understand the story he was telling and the extremes we might expect of someone in so much pain after losing his wife-to-be and his two sons.

Much of the most extreme emotional dialog of both actors takes place outside a centrally-lit part of the stage, so I could hear their emotional words but couldn't see their faces. I'm not sure if this was designed to show the depths of their despair, but it sure blocked the depths of their facial emotions. This issue aside, this is a powerful play. The story of Jason and Madea unravels in a surprise at the end. At only 50 minutes, Purgatorio is a fast-paced story which challenges our assumptions about life after death and the value of redemption. This play is worth the watching.


CIRCUS TRACKS By Sarah Hammond

Directed by Becca Johnson-Spinos
Projection Designer /Assistant Director - Jason Johnson-Spinos
Costume Designer/Stage Manager - Gillian Salerno-Rebic

arah Elizabeth Smith - Dewey
Elizabeth Evans - Jill
Duc Nguyen - Lester
Marla Jo Kelly - Leelio
Price Wayne Christian - Soundbite
Ian Mead Moore - Max
Rachel M. Carothers - Blind Lou

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see the fantastical world of Circus Tracks, a place you're not likely to witness again. Follow me as we embark on "an Odyssean voyage across a freak-studded desert". Watch those misfits as they "search for meaning, identity and family". Mothers, hold onto your children and men, hold on to your hats . . . . . the circus is about to begin . . . . . . !!

The seats in the Main Stage at WaterTower Theatre should have included belts so the audience could strap in for one of the most unusual, colorful, imaginative, thought-provoking and enjoyable rides of their lives. Outcry Theatre, in their bio, says they "utilize bold artistic vision, highly physical staging, and an energetic and visceral performance style" - and with Circus Tracks, you can check each of those ambitions off, and then some.

Their production at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival is visual art at its highest, ensemble acting at its most sublime, an imaginative story at its peak of entertainment, and a subject matter that, while hiding under lots of grease paint and theatre magic, will hopefully make one take pause and realize its true impact.

There are so many layers in this story of the children of the circus - a young clown that must give up her baby to avoid the ringmaster's wrath, a circus full of unwanted misfits, and a child whose mystic visions help her track down her mother - that further explanation would only become confusing. An underlying theme of abandonment, identity and purpose pervade the play. It is also entertaining, a visual treat, and amazingly enough, extremely funny.

Maybe having the word "circus" in the title brought several children to the afternoon performance, but this play is not meant for the younger of them. Not that there is a single offensive word or action, but the material can be raw at times, and any child younger than a teenager would love the spectacle but not understand the message.

On the other hand, as I discussed with the woman sitting next to me, many adults will also not go deeper into the story, but let the enormity of the visual be their mind's "slight-of-hand". And that's a shame because Circus Tracks works on many different levels, one of them being the idea of the worth of humans and how so very many go to their graves without ever knowing theirs.

But, enough about the deeper meaning and on to the one thing many people go to the circus to see the strange, the unusual, the slightly bawdy. . . . the sideshow ! Every oddity in a sideshow has a gimmick - and this show is no different. Leelio, the tattooed girl with "the handprint of God"; Lester, the humpbacked trapeze artist; Soundbite, who has the talent to mimic most anything, and Blind Lou, the gypsy fortune teller who foresees the journey of 13-year-old Dewey, the outcast one sent down the river like baby Moses by her mother, the ballerina clown Jill. Every good circus must have a master of ceremonies, a ringmaster who introduces the acts, keeps them current and interesting for the crowds.

In this case, the leader is Max, who keeps auditioning for fresh talent while "stealing" the magic from those already under his thumb.

Banishment from the circus seems to be growing, as many characters are seen waiting on the outskirts of the desert, fishing in dry lakes, sitting by dry rivers, hoping to come back to the only place they know as home.

The only stationary part of the set for Circus Tracks was its back screen, projecting child drawing-like CG video, designed by Jason Johnson-Spinos, of the striped circus tent, forest, waves, suburban houses in a row, riverbank, fireworks, etc. The play's scenes were written across the video on draped banners of cloth. Those titles were necessary as nothing else on the stage remained still long enough to be a true location! We've all seen set pieces and props used to become many different things, and here it was taken to extremes. The circus families' suitcases became boulders, sand dunes, steps, anything but what they were. A yellow scaffold went from boat to bus to a place high on the trapeze. Blue or red fabric rippled like the river or blew vertically like the Red Sea being parted by Moses (there he is again!). One strikingly beautiful prop was a tiger's full head mask made by papier mache.

Costumes by Gillian Salerno-Rebic were fairly straight-forward, interestingly enough. Lester wore clown-like shirt and pants, Blind Lou, in long print skirt and vest, made the 60's hippies proud, Soundbite was in grey overalls, and ringmaster Max wore the traditional braided military red jacket, black pants and top hat, befitting his role. Jill wore ballet pink leotard, tights and wraparound skirt, and teenager Dewey wore a simple orange dress to denote the fruit that accompanied her down the river. The true test of the costumer's talent lay in the many character changes of the actors, necessitating costume pieces that could either come on and off quickly or be layered to represent each role. With grease paint, wigs, hats, sunglasses (big and small), and other pieces, Salerno-Rebic helped make the characters identifiable and unique. I was most intrigued by the hand outline tattoos on the legs and arms of Leelio - were they painted on each performance or real henna art work? They were beautiful either way.

No play that forces the audience to use their imagination and let realism sit by the side can ever be successful if both the direction and the actor's belief level are less than perfect. With Circus Tracks, the physical staging was heightened to military precision. The attention to detail with every motion, every use of prop or person, the choosing and placement of each sound effect the actors made, had to have taken many hours of rehearsal to achieve such a stellar performance. The ensemble of actors was equal in their talent, and this was essential in order to achieve their goal. Everyone had to be at their very best or the story's balance would have faltered. The fun for me was to watch the abandonment of self to the multi-roles each actor had. One of my highlights was the sideshow "cave woman", who after being touched by Dewey, sensuously remembered her tribal dance performance. Though Ian Mead Moore was a great villain as Max, he made a disturbingly attractive woman, moustache, armpit hair and all. Marla Jo Kelly had a few touching scenes as Leelio, questioning whether God was suffering or angry with them, as she kept finding more and more marks on her body. Rachel M. Carothers was the consummate hippie and her characterization of the fortune teller was the pivotal balance between the play's seriousness and its many hilarious scenes.

Price Wayne Christian played Soundbite, who could make the sound of a tree growing or a bruise, with both sad intensity and the jovial nature of one who only wants to please.

Sarah Elizabeth Smith was most believable as a 13-year-old, a not as easy mindset to master once you become an adult. She held that characterization well throughout her scenes as Dewey. Jill, the mother who set her child free from the cruel circus, and Dewey's suburban mother who found her, were both played by Elizabeth Evans. Even with added costume, her characters were clearly defined and portrayed. The level of emotion given to the heartless Jill, and the depth of her ongoing grief were evident in Evans' eyes and expression.

The suburban mom was all silly and overly nurturing, setting up a comical separation of the characters that was equally enjoyable. My heart went out to the humpbacked high flyer, Lester. His pathos stemmed from being sold to the circus by a mother too ashamed of her son. Duc Nguyen was brilliant in the role. His character's pain and grieving was palpable, and when Nguyen told the story of Lester's life, the audience was noticeably quiet. The director's use of masses of rope to tie Lester was an inventive way to show both his entanglement by the trapeze lines and his way of life, but also being so tightly confined to his past and his sorrow.

I do not want anyone to read this and think, "What a downer show!" It is by no means a bummer (the hippie speaking). Outcry Theatre's production is a wonderment of imagination and pure, child-like fun. With the inventiveness of the designers, the talent of the actors, lines like "I got kicked out of the circus. Well, I got kicked out of the suburbs", and the location description being "a freak-studded desert", well, you know you are in for a trip of a lifetime. And as the circus tumblers say, when they slap arms to their sides in unison for their next trick, . . . "Shoom".