Women’s Theatre Festival broke ground last week with Freakshow, a live, socially-distant, virtual performance.
Freakshow, by Carson Kreitzer, presents a show within a show, giving viewers a glimpse into the personal and romantic lives of circus freaks as they travel from town to town. Each character — the owner, the over-the-hill star, the up-and-coming ingenue and the stagehand — present a different perspective, leaving the audience wondering what the truth is.
With each actor performing from a different location, the star of the show was undoubtedly the technical direction. One screen contained two or three different shots of actors, each bubble acting as its own separate space, like spotlights on a stage.
The show took advantage of the one-on-one format, using scene transitions and framing to make viewers feel as if they were actually ducking into a dark circus tent to see each individual act.
Many of the characters broke the fourth wall, speaking to the audience directly. The most notable example was Amalia — the woman with no arms or legs, played by Kariey Smith — who turns the viewer into a kind of backstage voyeur.
Through Smith’s slow, deliberate narration, viewers become a captive audience to the stark reality of show business. As Amalia describes her dark and sometimes disturbing experiences in human society, the real freak show is unveiled, like flipping the lights on in an empty theater.
Actors interacted with each other through pantomime, “looking” at each other through their screens, “handing” items through virtual space and leaning into the screen to kiss.
Still, the theatre’s innovative solutions to virtual performance couldn’t quite compensate for the lack of stage and audience. Even with all the work the camera was doing, it often felt as if the actors were disconnected, simply reading lines out into empty space.
A few technical glitches exacerbated the problem, with actors overlapping their lines, giving halting entrances or exits or simply not getting into the flow of the dialogue.
Juliana Valente, as Judith, had a natural presence, bringing a touch of reality to the poetic prose. But even as she blossomed in the second act, Tori Grace Nichols, as Mr. Flip, faltered with their dramatic dialogue. Nichols was a natural, though, exuding charisma as the circus’ emcee in the first act, but struggling with the show’s all-too-real climax.
While Clare Vestal as The Pinhead was eerily captivating, the performances of Jordan Biggers as the Human Salamander and Keely Cansler as The Girl never seemed to get off the ground. Although the two embraced their characters, they didn’t seem to fully inhabit them.
Freakshow has a strong message about the imbalance of power between men and women, using physical deformities as a metaphor of powerlessness. The show also doesn’t hesitate to address the way people perform for each other and themselves, using lies to sustain life.
And for those yearning to return to their seats in front of the stage, the technical elements of the show provide an interesting and rewarding experience. But the Women’s Theatre Festival, like every other theater right now, still has some work to do if they want to create a virtual performance equal to an in-person show.
The Women’s Theatre Festival’s production of Freakshow runs through June 6th. For ticket information, visit https://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/.
Check out our RDU on Stage live chat with scenic designer Ami Kirk Jones here.