When it comes to interesting historical curiosities, it's hard to beat your basic freak show. Events featuring bearded ladies, strong men, and midgets sold lots of tickets in old-time traveling carnivals; citizens loved to gawk at odd-looking human beings without actually having to travel to Mississippi. But the sideshow in Toni K. Thayer's play Ten in One is asked to carry such a heavy load of metaphorical baggage that it falls short of its ambitious goals.
Presented free of charge at various locations, Ten in One (carny lingo for a sideshow offering 10 geek attractions for one price) is this year's outreach touring production, sponsored by the Great Lakes Theater Festival as part of its And Justice for All series of community programs. Unfortunately, GLTF's reputation for quality is not in evidence in this short piece, which is as flawed in concept as it is in execution.
We meet the Gazonie family -- mother Louise, daughter Tiny, and son Sax -- the family proprietors of a sideshow proffering acts such as "The Strong Man: A Bootstrap Is All He Needs!" and "Can You Keep Up With the Joneses?" These not-so-subtle titles are painted on posters, and in case you're still not getting the message, the entire enterprise is billed in big red letters as the "Amazing American Dream."
Clearly, playwright Thayer is intent on turning this collection of oddball attractions (none is ever seen, by the way) into a handy-dandy metaphorical smorgasbord. At one moment, the sideshow is presented as a small family business being ruined by big corporations (TV and carnival owners) -- but then it's also seen as a symbol of capitalistic persistence or an icon of personal freedom or an example of sleazy illusion and hype. Since we're never quite sure what this 10-in-1 represents, it ends up standing for nothing. The play is also undermined by some clunky dialogue ("I want a life on and of the land," says Sax, with prepositional purposefulness) and rather mystical character motivations. Louise is totally dedicated to the carny life until she splits, leaving Tiny holding the bag, while Sax first decides to stay with the show, then leave, then stay, and finally leave -- all with little explanation.
To be fair, Thayer doesn't get much help from director Lisa Ortenzi and the four-person cast. As Louise, Rhoda Rosen begins the show with a huckster's spiel that exhibits none of the slick, oleaginous charm of a sideshow "talker." And her son and daughter, played by Tim Keo and Betsy Kahl, enunciate and behave as if they grew up on a cul-de-sac in Rocky River, rather than in the underbelly of a scruffy, itinerant carnival. Only Michael Regnier, as the boss, feels as genuine and interesting as Jenny L. Hitmar's amusing set.
It is noble and necessary for theatrical works to focus on important issues. But when laudable earnestness is worn right on the sleeve, as it is in Ten in One, it's a lot easier to brush off.