Julia Pastrana, by a young Brit named Shaun Prendergast, is based on the real life of its eponymous protagonist, a Mexican peasant with a disfigured face who was seduced and displayed as a carnival attraction by an American showman. Raising questions about appearance and identity, among other issues, and directed with an experienced hand by J.V. Mercanti, this short but potent work immerses us in a bizarre world from its first moments. On a carnival freak show set designed by Heather E. Humphrey, the play begins under traditional lighting (by Chad Jung) with a ballyhoo delivered by Jonathan Fielding as the showman and his fellow actors, including Frances Mercanti-Anthony, Evan Mueller, and Jessica Myhr.
Riffing on the grotesque, the carnies taunt us with descriptions of Julia, "a nonpareil of noxious, neolithic, physiological noncomformity." But the magic happens when the lights go out and Erin Williams as Julia comes on. Her voice is tremulous, tender, and entrancing, offering language as our only connection to this lost spirit. We feel Julia's presence more intimately than we might otherwise because, without an image of her, she exists more potently in our imagination.
The power of the spoken word informs this piece, a magical-realistic romp with a nod to Lacan. Our collaboration with the piece requires that we co-create each scene in our heads as we attend a living, breathing panorama in surround-sound. Not confined to the stage, actors walk through the audience and sit in sections divided by performance areas. This is no radio play: The characters' proximity is provocative and bracing, dissolving the safety and detachment of the audience/stage barrier with the help of sound-creating props. Backed by excellent sound design courtesy of John Moros, Julia and company enact various scenes that are not always moving in and of themselves but that collectively mesmerize us.
The ferocity of Lent, Julia's lover and manager/exploiter (excellently played by Evan Mueller) is overwhelming: His fetish for control, fulfilled by Julia's enforced helplessness, chills us. But, ultimately, the script's single-note characterization of Lent is too shrill. Though inventive rhythmically and lyrically, Prendergast's text does not generally offer characters that feel fully inhabited. This may seem intentional and understandable, given the absence of visual input. But, at times, even Julia feels approximated, summoned, a ghost of herself.
The overall effect is somewhat Brechtian: alienation from the scene mixed with provocation. The super-intimacy of the performance technique pulls us close even as the distancing, outlandish premise pushes us into foreign territory marked by the script's surreal language. The play's best dramatic moment is its most gentle, when Frances Mercanti-Anthony as the Countess takes pity on Julia, offering companionship and an interlude of kindness.
Fortunately for its audience, Julia Pastrana brings technical skill and artistic sophistication to a show that had the potential for death by self-indulgence. An ambitious Texas-based troupe, Amphibian Productions explores virtually uncharted territory here, its few maps coming from the likes of Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends. With help from inspired if briefly seen costumes by Laura Anderson Barbata, the piece defies the somnolence of darkness and rivets us, seeming to take place all around and within us. Strange, bold, and well executed, it causes us to question what we think of as theater, what we believe about human interaction, and how we access our imagination.