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Review: 'Juliana Pastrana' is performed in total darkness, yet it opens the mind's eye

Posted 7:06am on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012

Through a play, darkly.

Amphibian Stage Productions has moved into its new permanent home, the Berlene T. and Jarrell R. Milburn Theatre, with a show that is performed in total darkness. It is titled (take a deep breath), The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (whew!).

They used to have a name for entertainment like this. It was called "radio."

This poignant drama calls to mind some of the best efforts from that medium when it was in the business of bringing the public the sort of programming that we now see on TV and the Web.

True to its long-winded title, this bit of theater in a darkened closet tells the heart-wrenching tale of Pastrana, a Mexican Indian born in 1834 with facial deformities that made her a fright to see. She ultimately wound up in various traveling freak shows where she was marketed as looking something like a cross between a woman and a bear or an ape.

But we don't see that, or anything else, in this show written by Shaun Prendergast and directed by Jonathan Fielding. Once the audience is seated, the lights go down and the darkness is total. How the five actors in the show move around without bumping into us or one another is a mystery to me. But their ability to safely perform the show probably has something to do with the many long, black strings running between the aisles that were visible once the lights came up.

The darkness is a gimmick, for sure. But it is a good one that has some validity beyond making the work stand out from the norm. The pitch-black world in which it plays underscores the bleakness of Pastrana's life -- much of which was spent locked in darkened rooms. And the Julia the patrons see in their minds is simultaneously far uglier and more beautiful that anything a makeup artist could achieve.

In terms of the audience experience, the play happens all around you. Fielding does a great job of using the (new) space. And the sound design by David Lanza is nothing short of dazzling in terms of both what is heard and where it comes from. Oddly, what it is most like is listening to the amazing albums by the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre, which are theatrically and sonically brilliant. If there is such a thing as headphones theater, this is it.

The game plan provided by Fielding and Lanza is superbly executed by a versatile cast of players who portray multiple characters in this one-hour, one-act drama. Mary Lang is wonderfully endearing as the title character, and Bob Hess is excellent as the unscrupulous Lent, who basically owns her. But I feel confident in saying that Brandon J. Murphy, Chandler Smith and Jessica Vera are every bit as good, even without being exactly sure who is doing what.

The show is the first in Amphibian's new home on South Main Street, just south of downtown. For the patron, the theater is not much to look at. It is just an unadorned box and the performance area is similar in size to the company's old home at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. But it offers a much better working space and a permanent home for a fine organization that has deserved one for a long time. Amphibian has offered some great work, and these gleaming new digs should allow it to do even better in the future.

So it is a bit ironic that the new home is being christened with a show during which you cannot see the surroundings. But there is no bad time for a play this unusual and enthralling. It is "theater of the mind" (a phrase old radio types used to describe their craft) at its finest.

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