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Nature of Freaks

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Hunchback

Redmoon Theater

at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Side Show

Northlight Theatre

at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Adam Langer

You hand in your ticket and you go watch the geek

Who immediately walks up to you when he hears you speak

And says, "How does it feel to be such a freak?"

--Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"

We have different freak shows now--late-night and daytime talk shows, which parade emotional and social aberrations before us with the same leer carnival barkers once used to beckon bloodthirsty throngs to watch a man bite the head off a dove. Then there are the voyeuristic real-time peep shows that train their cameras on our living rooms and bedrooms to drive home the truth that old-time sideshows tried to disguise: in one way or another, we're all freaks. From one perspective, every man or woman is a unique, bizarre specimen. And from another, every physical or emotional peculiarity, whether it's a third eye smack-dab in the middle of a forehead or an obsessive-compulsive desire to scrub the sink every day, binds us to those who are also peculiar.

Redmoon Theater's Hunchback ostensibly tells the story of an outsider's inability to fit into a world that rejects him because of his physical appearance--but the world is presented as a mad carnival of grotesqueries, each creature stranger than the next in a society supremely ugly and squalid yet somehow sublime. And in the carnival world of Northlight Theatre's musical Side Show--based on the true story of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins displayed in carnival tents and vaudeville houses and ultimately on the silver screen--supposed differences become banal. The sisters, the serpent man, the tattooed lady, and the cannibal are joined by their need for love and companionship. Both productions explore the extraordinary and find the universal; both offer serious, exceedingly well-wrought visions. But Hunchback delights in the peculiar, the surreal, and the nightmarish while Side Show revels in the ordinary: no matter how unusual the lives it presents, everyone sings the same old-fashioned, dreamy tunes. Ultimately Redmoon's approach is more resonant: rather than simply reassure us, this puppet troupe forges a gripping, tantalizingly original show that's both memorably beautiful and profoundly disturbing.

Like its production of Frankenstein, Redmoon's haunting Hunchback is filled with both horror and whimsy, taking Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a starting point to tell the tale of bell ringer Quasimodo's doomed love for a wayward Gypsy girl. Directed by Jim Lasko and Leslie Buxbaum and featuring text by Mickle Maher, Hunchback zigzags through this oft told tragedy, speeding through some of the story but digressing to explore the plight of the girl, snatched from her loving mother and pursued by a mad, murderous member of the clergy. Interruptions by the "author," presumably Hugo, offer additional historical detail, comic relief, and a heady, sometimes irreverent perspective on the original text and Redmoon's interpretation, commenting in terms of postmodern literary theory and Brechtian epic theater. The story naturally holds our interest even if the themes are familiar, represented in works from The Elephant Man to King Kong to Young Frankenstein. But Redmoon's techniques are truly mind-blowing: this production has more sheer magic and technical ingenuity than any show you're likely to see this year.

There are more amazing special effects in a minute here than there are in the entire plodding two hours of Mission: Impossible 2. To achieve them Redmoon uses gigantic puppets, miniature puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, masks--enormous, frightening masks lifted right out of a child's nightmares--acrobatics, storybook illustrations, handmade pop-up books, and mysterious crates piled up at the back of the stage through which the actors pop in and out. Redmoon's madcap shifting from one technique to another is both theatrical and cinematic. A good deal of the staging seems influenced by German expressionist silent films, and the way in which scenes switch from larger-than-life puppets to miniature ones and back again is the equivalent of cutting between close-ups and long shots. The narrative is expertly underscored by Michael Zerang's eerie, propulsive, evocative music and sound design.

Moods shift rapidly from comedy to terror. A hilarious scene in which a dashing young man seduces the Gypsy girl is interrupted by a spine-tingling vision of cold-blooded murder. Beauty mingles with ugliness, sorrow with hope. Quasimodo is not a bizarre creature in a Paris populated by normal human beings but an oddity among other oddities, a freak among freaks as misshapen and grotesque as the looming, foreboding architecture of the city. The ultimate effect is not only breathtaking but inspiring.

Despite all the technical wizardry and smart-ass interruptions, Redmoon is able to sustain both the soul of Hugo's story and the impact of its harrowing, grisly finale: Quasimodo and his beloved embrace as skeletons in a crypt. Bleak and chillingly morbid, the scene is not without humanity and passion. In this ghoulish embrace, depicted with grace and eloquence, prejudice is overcome by love--beneath the skin and costumes and masks Redmoon finds the true beauty and emotion that lie in our bones.

The search for love and beauty in unexpected places also informs Side Show, with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger. Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in England in 1908 and performed first on the sideshow circuit and later in films like Chained for Life and Tod Browning's legendary Freaks. Their travails and their romances were fodder for much gossip.

Side Show takes a sliver of their lives--from their discovery by talent scout Terry Connor to their initial rise to fame--and focuses on their difficulties finding love and acceptance despite their fame. A fairly typical showbiz fairy tale with a bitter aftertaste, the story resembles the biographies of such tragic figures as Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, except that it has two protagonists and they're joined at the hip.

The authors take pains to demonstrate the ordinariness of the Hilton sisters' struggles. In the opening number each sideshow character is dressed in unremarkable clothing and beckons the audience in enticing whispers to "come look at the freaks." Then they go offstage to don their sideshow garb. The message is fairly obvious: beneath the surface of every so-called carnival freak is a person with the same hopes and dreams as everyone in the audience. But the delivery is compelling--in many ways this is the show's most gripping, provocative number.

The problem with this cunningly written, deftly scored musical is that the creators perhaps succeed too well at finding the commonalities between the Hilton sisters and everyone else in the world, offering a show rife with platitudes, oversimplifications, and musical-theater cliches. Krieger's accomplished tunes run the gamut from Andrews Sisters-style harmonies to easy-listening modern pop with a country twang, but many of them have a rote quality. Consider the lyrics: the twins first thrill to the notion that "all of our dreams are coming true," then discover to their chagrin that their fame is empty if there's no one "who will ever call to say 'I love you.'"

Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that the sideshow characters are no different from any other band of societal outsiders, whether actors or disenfranchised minority groups, Russell and Krieger make them generic and somewhat sanitized. The downside to their humanistic approach is that it renders the characters and their stories largely unremarkable.

There's little to quibble with in Northlight's production, however. Joe Leonardo's remarkably economical staging throws all of its weight behind a truly excellent cast, with particularly fine turns from James Moye as slick mover and shaker Terry Connor; Nikkieli DeMone as the Hilton sisters' earnest African-American road manager, whose unrequited love for one of the sisters focuses attention on the difficulties of being another kind of outsider; and Kristen Behrendt and Susie McMonagle as the Hilton sisters, engaging in wonderful counterpoint in a seemingly unusual story that turns out to be not so unusual after all.

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