It's not every day that a traveling Victorian freak show comes to town, and more's the pity. Presided over by the grandiloquent and opium-addled impresario Mr. Edward Gant, Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness rolls into Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage with an array of perversely grotesque and grimly funny tales of heartbreak ably performed by his roving band of tragedians. "You will gasp, yes, and you will marvel and you will see your share of grotesquerie," Gant informs us at the outset. "But the deformities on show this evening are not the deformities of the frame, but those of the heart and mind."
Sensitive viewers -- or as Gant would have it, "My good and pure ladies, my brave and gentle men" -- should be forewarned that the show involves some disgusting moments. So beware, tender hearts, if you blanch at such sights as copious pimple popping, amateur trepanation and old-fashioned brownface. (The Italian accents in the show are as broad as the Indian one, but the effect is decidedly different.)
Brian Herndon as Edward Gant
Written by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, the play premiered in 2002 in Plymouth, UK, but it was performed just last year by San Francisco's 99 Stock Productions as that company's first production. That show was easy to miss, however, because it was mostly done at the New York International Fringe Festival, with just a two-day revival at San Francisco State University. Shotgun's production is the first chance that most folks in the Bay Area have to see the work.
This new staging is deftly performed by an ensemble of four, ably directed by Beth Wilmurt, herself best known as an actor (such as in Shotgun's Mary Stuart and Woyzeck or Marin Theatre Company's The Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Though Christine Crook's elegant costumes root the play in its 1880s setting, Nina Ball's terrific scenic design hews to no particular period: The play is performed out of the back of a truck, complete with bumper and tail lights. Scenic backdrops fill the truck interior, and the stage is a small wooden plank platform in front of it, with white party lights strung overhead.
Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser
Brian Herndon is a somber and stony-faced Gant with an unnerving stare. His players perform the sad tale of a young woman, Sanzonetta (a graceful Sarah Moser), who discovers that she can squeeze pearls out of the pimples entirely covering her once-lovely face. Patrick Kelly Jones pricelessly portrays her preeningly vain sister, and Ryan Drummond is charismatic and hilariously appalling at the same time as a rich and flamboyantly mustachioed suitor, Signor Avaricci. "He said there was no place in the Catholic Church for the sexual molestation of children," Signor Avaricci says by way making pleasant conversation, "so they're building one."
In another unfortunate tale, Drummond plays a proper young gentleman whose true love (a delightfully flibbertigibbety Moser) has died, causing him to seek out a mountain-dwelling Indian fakir (played by Jones in the aforementioned ethnic drag). The amusingly terse Ranjeev the Uncomplicated is rumored to know a way to make men forget their woes, which is where the messy onstage lobotomy comes in. Hard as it may be to believe, the play just gets more outré from there.
The actors in Mr. Gant's troupe who perform these roles are characters in their own right, as becomes increasingly clear when the show starts to go off whatever rails it was on in the first place.
Sarah Moser, Patrick Kelly Jones and Ryan Drummond.
Despite the period trappings and old-timey language (a woman is reported as having died "of a surfeit of eels"), the sense of humor is thoroughly modern -- of the absurd, profane and gross-out varieties -- and often slyly or not-so-slyly referencing a more contemporary idiom. "No one would touch you with a gondolier-pole," Sanzonetta's sister tells her. There's even a reference to a Will Smith lyric in that same story, plus a chorus of blemishes beckoning, "Squeeze us! Expel our cheese!" But these gags often hysterical, usually in proportion to how sick and wrong they are.
But there's something more interesting going on, too. In its sickly, wounded heart the show isn't just a clever bit of faux-antique entertainment. It's a wry celebration of storytelling and performance itself at its rawest and most theatrical, both when it goes bewitchingly right and when it goes catastrophically wrong. Gant, as usual, puts it best: "The truth of life lies least of all in the facts."
Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness runs through January 11, 2014 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit shotgunplayers.org.
All photos by Pak Han.