Reviewed by Jessica Salans
Through May 25
A girl named Razi is made of paper. They say her daddy screwed a tree. A boy, Neto, lives in a deserted, junkyard library, using the remains of food cans as paint. His left hand is burnt and limp at his side, his belly a crater scar of dried, molten blood.
Gabriel Rivas Gomez’s new play Circus Ugly does not know what it wants to be amidst it’s many intriguing themes that include identity and purpose. It is nonetheless a must-see for any number of reasons that, cumulatively, demonstrate that clarity is not necessarily the first priority of a riveting theatrical event.
The performances are electric: David Huynh’s Neto is heartbreaking in his journey for self-acceptance in his unspecified, apocalyptic world that’s set beneath a strip club/freak show. He learns, ever so carefully, how to be vulnerable with Razi, and how, and when, to put on a valiant fight.
Bianca Lamaire’s Razi is fierce with a capital F. She takes to the stage the way fire takes to a wick. Her presence is immediate — bursting and then simmering. Ross Gallo is another spark: quick and intense in his actions as Adrian, henchman of Circus Ugly. Gallo is malicious in his bravado and sadly honest when eventually revealing that he can’t read.
Ann Colby Stocking as Lady Trobaugh, the freak show madam, grates like sandpaper but in a way that leaves you wanting to bend to her will and become smooth. Stocking’s performance is unapologetic and wondrous.
There’s a character named Shadow, well-played by Anita Dashiell-Sparks — delicate and graceful in her movements, complementary to her partners on stage, though her dramaturgical purpose was lost on me.
All design elements support the fine acting work. Cristopher Scott Murillo’s set is engulfing, Justin Huen’s lighting is sickly off-putting and ethereal all at once. Sound designer Cricket S Meyers’s funky jams between scenes keep the pace of the show energetic, and Mylette Nora’s costumes evoke the characters without being overly literal.
The story is intensely intriguing at the start, with its end of-some-world setting and coy conversation. Like the timeless setting, the story lacks definition. It is not clear why today, of all days, paper-girl Razi, meets the disfigured Neto and decides to pursue him in partnership. The purpose of the ethereal Shadow woman who appears (as Neto’s consciousness?) is similarly vague.
The play’s antagonists run the carnival strip club above Neto’s library, and the writing in many of these scenes feels overly expository, rather than allowing this inner-world to emerge from its own devices.
And yet, the protagonists’ abnormalities are so extreme that their discomfort and self-doubt become universal. Their pain is so transcendent, pushing beyond wearisome traditional boundaries of race and gender, they redefine the meaning of diversity. The play’s stark and seething world view almost makes a mockery of old-school identity politics, or at least renders them irrelevant. Because all that really matters is you and me enduring the larger, metaphysical horrors of a world gone wrong, and finding a life’s purpose in that challenge.
Playwright’s Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Sat. 8 P.M., Sun. 3 P.M., Mon. 7 P.M. through May 25, http://www.playwrightsarena.org/