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A Dark Day in the Theater

Filichia doesn't keep us in the dark about his recent encounter with Julia Pastrana. logo
Erin Williams, Jessica Myhr, Frances Mercanti-Anthony,
Jonathan Fielding, and Evan Mueller in Julia Pastrana
Now I've seen everything -- even though I saw very little. I know that sounds cryptic, so I'll explain: I received a press release about a new play that was opening at the Greenwich Street Theatre under the auspices of Amphibian Productions. It was called The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World. My guess is that author Shaun Prendergast wanted to give Peter Weiss's The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade a run for its money.

Yet the title isn't the most astonishing thing about the show. The press release said that virtually the entire play would take place in the dark -- the pitch-black dark -- save for the first few minutes. Well, this I had to see, so to speak. But as it turned out, the only night I could attend was the night of the final dress rehearsal. "Come anyway," the press agent said. I told him I would, though I doubted I'd write anything -- for how could I take notes in the dark? And he wouldn't want me to bring one of those pesky pen-light pens, would he? No, I was told, he wouldn't.

I arrived at the Greenwich Street Theatre, a space to which I don't believe I've ever been. The interior of the small house was strung with netting to make us feel as if we were in a side-show circus tent. Of course, I was much too early, even though I walked in at 8pm. Has there ever been a final dress that began on time? This one would start later still because I was talking to director J.V. Mercanti, a truly bright young man who has had a good deal of experience as assistant director of the recent Broadway revivals of Joe Egg and Little Me and the national tour of Chicago. Mercanti told me that Prendergast envisioned the entire 55-minute play taking place in total darkness but the director thought it a better idea to show the first scene -- in which the owner-emcee of the side show, with a bevy of enticing girls around him -- tells us that we're about to see Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World. Then the owner-emcee would pull back the curtain to reveal her -- and that's when the lights would go out just as they did on August 14, 2003. Mercanti told me that, while Prendergast didn't agree with the first scene's illumination, he relented and let the director stage it the way he wanted.

From his knapsack, Mercanti pulled out a book whose cover showed the real Julia Pastrana (1834-1860), a woman with dark hair not only under her chin but all over her forehead. She also had outsized ears, lips, and jaw; indeed, her face would not have launched a thousand ships, though her body was attractive. As I studied the photo, the five cast members -- all in 19th century costumes, by the way -- practiced running down the center aisle with their eyes closed. There was a strategically placed little piece of malleable plastic on the floor that told them where the halfway mark was; incidentally, it was right next to the aisle seat I had taken for myself. The seat was directly in the auditorium's crossroads, for not only was there a vertical aisle bisecting the house but also a horizontal one, making four squares of seats. I wondered if I should move to another location but Mercanti told me that I was fine just where I was. "They need to get used to someone on the aisle," he said, "though we have rehearsed with that in mind."

It's not unheard of for an Off-Off-Broadway production to have only one or two weeks of rehearsal, but Mercanti gave his performers a full six weeks. (Call him the Jerome Robbins of Off-Off-Broadway.) He spent the first month staging the show in the light and the final two months rehearsing it in the darkness. The first rehearsals were in a hall at 520 Eighth Avenue, where he mapped out the exact dimensions of the theater. He and the cast had only one week in the theater itself, culminating with the dress rehearsal I was about to see.

I wondered about fire regulations. Was it, in fact, legal to do a show in the dark? He pointed out an illuminated "Exit" sign at the back of the house that was bright enough to be seen but not enough, he said, to throw off the production's intentions. He said with a smile that the fire marshall was much more concerned about a match being lit on the set. Under the darkened circumstances, who knows what havoc a dropped match could inadvertently cause?

Julia Pastrana in performance
The show began with sinuous ladies surrounding the carnival owner. Then, as promised, the lights went out. I enjoyed the novelty of listening -- really listening, and nothing else -- to a play. Sure, I have a few recordings of plays (e.g., The Andersonville Trial and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but I've had the lights on whenever I've given them a spin. For those who wonder if the whole darkness thing was just a gimmick, there is some thematic validation: Julia told us that her owner kept her in a dark room when she wasn't performing in order to shield her from everyone's sight. (This wasn't the only reason that I had sympathy for the poor unfortunate; how and why she died was truly heartbreaking. Prendergast has written a good play that could pass muster under the harshest light.)

I was astonished by how well the cast did. That old adage about "Don't bump into the furniture" was harder to follow here! I kept expecting the actors to bump into me when they whisked past, but that didn't happen once. The only way I was touched was by a wisp of spittle that came from one of the performer's mouths. (Don't ask me whodunnit.) Whenever something works well in the theater, those behind me can see me nodding my head as if to say, "Yeah, they got that right." Alas, Mercanti and his crew couldn't see me doing that, but I'm here to say that I nodded numerous times. I especially loved the fact that, after I became accustomed to voices coming from the actors standing above me, I suddenly heard one or two coming from below me. Nice for Mercanti to have some cast members prone on the floor of the theater to achieve that effect. Finally, I decided that there are some advantages to watching a play in darkness. If you've got an itch that you wouldn't otherwise scratch lest you gross out the people around you, here you can scratch away in peace.

They got through the play without a hitch or an injury -- or so it seemed. Just as I was about to applaud, right after Mercanti said "Bring the house lights up -- slowly!" lest we all be blinded, I heard a female voice cry out in pain. Soon, I saw that Mercanti and everyone else was crowded around her. Though she said she was all right, she was clearly disgusted with herself for coming so close to the finish line without a problem and then blowing it at the last second. Here's the irony: She was getting in place for her curtain call and, in her rush to take her bow, slammed into a platform. You can get actors to perform in the dark but I guess they still want their moment in the sun, don't they?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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