The show begins outside the theater where Artistic Director Clyde Simon, in the role of ringmaster and owner of Mr. Flip's Traveling Freakshow, takes your ticket. There are no rubes in the middle-class, middle-aged crowd that streams inside to fill the theater's 41 seats. Convergence-continuum is dedicated to working outside the mainstream, proudly offering a season of experimental pieces in an intimate house usually no more than half full, but this time they have a hit on their hands.
If theater is dedicated to widening the range of human experience, then a turn-of-the-century freakshow is the perfect metaphor. When you give in to your curiosity and indulge your - let's face it - prurient interest in the spectacle of human suffering, you put yourself at risk. Wedged in among strangers, you wait to see what will happen next.
"I'm not a bad man," proclaims Mr. Flip, whirling his cane in the too-small space, pointing here and there as he explains that he bought his freaks when they were babies, to save their lives. We are the bad ones, the ones who come to gawk, the ones who tease and torture. The fear of physical disability is a terrible thing. It makes ordinary people into monsters, but here, inside the tent, the equation is reversed.
In the world of the freakshow, disability rules. Amalia, the girl with no arms and legs, sits center stage on a free-standing table. (No, that's not a head superimposed on an armless torso; there's no curtain for the actress to hide behind. That's actress Laurel Johnson's real body that has somehow been transformed.) She is the queen of this world, the others live to serve her, to feed and dress her, to comb her hair.
Lucy Bredeson-Smith gives the performance of a lifetime as the dog-faced girl. Born with a cleft palate that distorts both her face and her speech, her walk crippled by the habit of crawling, she is a miracle of kindness and practical good sense. Once the star of the circus, she now takes care of the others, advises Mr. Flip and comforts the Pinhead's night terrors. There are no words to describe the moment when she finally tells her story, when she reverts to a howling, barking creature that somehow remains human, that opens the boundaries of humanity for everyone in the audience.
Johnson and Bredeson-Smith transform Carson Kreitzer's mediocre script into a theatrical event that, as the saying goes, must be seen to be believed. Johnson draws us into a self-contained world of irony and independent thinking, while Bredeson-Smith flings her distorted body against the chains and barriers society has erected to keep her outside.
Director Geoffrey Hoffman illuminates this hidden world with power and compassion. Stuart Hoffman strikes just the right note as Mathew, the boy who cleans the cages and stands in awe of Amalia. Sarah Kunchik is feisty and brave as the Girl who falls in love with Aquaboy, played by Shawn Galligan. Kellie McIvor's poignant singing and Mark K's guitar provide a touching background to many scenes. The only false note is in the casting of McIvor as the Pinhead. A male actor is required to make the relationship with Amalia believable.
Freakshow is a tribute to the risk-taking mission of convergence-continuum, the vision of Artistic Director Simon and the generosity of his fearless and talented company. They may not set out to make hits; their vision is too experimental. But sometimes, when the moment is right, they have the power to rock our world.
Freakshow, Through August 23, convergence-continuum, The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., Cleveland, 216.687.0074