I walked out of the Thursday night preview of Mary Vingoe’s Living Curiosities or What You Will thinking about a lot of things. I was thinking about the kind of “it takes a village” mentality that goes into putting on a play. Everyone—actors, backstage crew, director, lighting designer—all have to give everything to the world of the play, and it was clear from the performance that everyone had. I was also thinking about all the issues Living Curiosities tackles: metatheatrics, race relations, power, gender stereotyping, and sexual orientation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Living Curiosities follows the story of Anna Swan (Hannah Vanden Boomen), a giantess from Nova Scotia who comes to P.T. Barnum’s (Samuel Turner) museum in New York City. Unlike most of the other curiosities, though, Anna is not exactly a volunteer. She’s there because the money is good, she has to help support her family, and there are few jobs in Nova Scotia for a seven-foot-ten lady. Then, against Barnum’s orders, Anna takes it upon herself to produce Twelfth Night with a cast of enthusiastic, if troublesome, curiosities.
Suspension of disbelief is the thing that allows actors onstage to do things that cannot technically be done by humans, or indoors. It’s how a person can wave a piece of blue fabric onstage and there is an ocean, or how an actor can spread their arms, run around, and therefore fly. All the roles in Living Curiosities require very delicate yet fearless choices. To play someone not yourself is one thing, but most of the characters in this play come with the added challenge of being, in some way or other, curiosities. I thought I’d have trouble believing people to be something so wholly not who they are, but instead I was suspended, not once thinking about stilts or harnesses or stick-on beards.
The writing of Living Curiosities is filmic in style, presenting a series of short scenes usually not involving more than two or three characters, except for some more populated rehearsal and performance scenes. This creates clusters of fascinating relationships. For example, Josephine Clofullia (Courtney Keir) develops a touching friendship with Anna despite her being haunted by her lost daughter Clara (Paige Falardeau) and ensuing laudanum addiction. Through connections as intricate as a spider web, Clofullia is linked to Henry Jackson (Jovan Kocic) who supplies her with laudanum on Barnum’s orders, creating yet another pairing between Jackson and Barnum. Barnum has essentially saved Jackson’s life, and in return Jackson keeps an eye on the exhibits, reporting all the goings-on back to Barnum. Then there are the black albino sisters, Lucia and Alphonsia. Lucia (Brittany Miranda) roils with anger and is looking for a better future than being a museum exhibit, laundry woman, or slave while her sister Alphonsia (Mercedes Morris) befriends the Nova Scotia giantess. Certainly not to be left out are Chang (Aaron Schaefer) and Eng (Anthony Yu), conjoined twins so drastically unlike each other that, under any circumstances except theirs, they would have run in opposite directions.
As I mentioned, Living Curiosities was written with to-the-point, rapid-fire scenes, leaving the director the challenge of linking the narrative together. It was in these dark places between the scenes that I really saw director Sten Eirik and assistant director Falardeau work their magic. The soundscape was just this side of terrifying, filling the theatre with an echoing heartbeat, off-kilter circus music, and zoo noises that may or may not have included human sounds.
When I attended the readthrough in January, Eirik spoke of the play as consisting of “pools of light” emerging from the shadows. I saw this vision carried through in both the set and lighting design, which, though highly compartmentalized, gave me the impression of only being permitted to distinguish a few key moments from the surrounding darkness. And then the end (no spoilers, I promise) sees the darkness consumed in both light and tragedy
I don’t know if I have ever seen a group of actors so deeply immersed in their characters. It is kind of incredible to look at the roles these same performers played in The Capulets and the Montagues in the fall and compare them to the much heavier fare of Living Curiosities. Turner’s Barnum is a truly disgusting, slimy showman and a stark contrast to the comic hero Romeo from the fall. Vanden Boomen plays a gentle-hearted yet opinionated Anna, finding all the layers and deep variety her character offers.
I don’t quite know what Keir and Kocic do to get into their characters, but it’s working. Vocally, physically, the whole package. That’s all I have to say about that. Chang and Eng, like Anna, have to contend with a pretty drastic physical manipulation. And like Anna, they do it with a great deal of grace and complete devotion to character that I have not seen until now. Morris and Miranda also nail down their relationship artfully, even though it hangs on a couple of lines of dialogue and a look.
The cast is supported by visitors to the museum and Barnum’s workmen (Falardeau, Jack Comerford, John Wamsley, Shawn Doyle), all of whom bring remarkable life and energy to the stage.
Living Curiosities’ run ended yesterday.