Some plays are so unexpectedly marvelous and/or so deeply thought-provoking that you can’t stop talking about them long after the house lights have gone back up. Gabriel Rivas Gomez’s Circus Ugly, the latest from Playwrights’ Arena, is likely to inspire almost as much post-performance conversation as those, but for a different reason. Yes, several of its performers manage to impress and so does a topnotch production design, but not even a lukewarm recommendation is possible for a play that still has me scratching my head and wondering, “WTF was that?!”

11141216_878993985477473_2594695670981934174_n As best I can figure out, Ann Colby Stocking’s bearded lady Trobaugh runs a strip club where Ugly Is The New Sexy, or something like that, a sort of Side Show meets Burlesque, where the ecdysiasts all have some physical deformation or another.

A nearly shirtless Ross Gallo plays Adrian, Circus Ugly’s physically fit “talent scout” and a frequent visitor to the abandoned library that painter Neto (David Huynh) calls home.

Neto, who uses canned food residue instead of paint to create his cardboard “canvases,” has his own abnormality—a deformed arm—that makes him the perfect candidate to join Circus Ugly’s pansexual company of strippers. (It’s certainly not friendship that brings Adrian around, given how often he calls Neto the F word. Then again, Adrian’s homophobic pejorative of choice might just be a case of “The lady doth protest too much.”)

df A more frequent visitor chez Neto is Shadow (Anita Dashiell-Sparks), a ghostlike specter with a paintbrush halo and an amped voice. Is she his dead mother? His muse? A figment of Neto’s imagination?

I’ll bet no one involved with Circus Ugly can answer that one for sure, nor I’m guessing can any of them explain how Razi (Bianca Lemaire), Neto’s latest night caller, ended up born with papyrus in place of epidermis.

10646826_10cc Regardless of its origin, Razi’s made-of-paper skin would appear to make her a prime candidate for Circus Ugly’s company of freaks, if only Adrian can convince—or coerce—her to audition.

Mysteries abound in Circus Ugly, not the least of which is what inspired its director, Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, to give Gomez’s play its World Premiere production, following as it does such outstanding new works as Velina Hasu Houston’s Cinnamon Girl, Boni B. Alvarez’s Dallas Non Stop, Nick Salamone’s Euripides’ Helen, and Michael Premsrirat’s The Girl Most Likely To, all of which I absolutely loved.

How did Razi end up with paper for skin? What exactly are Neto’s physical defects and how did he get them? Who the hell is Shadow, and how does she do that with her voice?

I doubt any of Circus Ugly’s creative team can answer these questions (and that includes its writer), nor was I myself all that interested in knowing who was who and what was what. Throughout both acts I kept glancing at my wrist, only to realize to my dismay that I’d not worn a watch.

Recent Stage Raw Career Achievement Award winner Rivera does what he can with Gomez’s abstruse script, whose apparent message (“Everyone Is Beautiful In Their Own Way”) has been conveyed far more successfully elsewhere. Then again, it may all be as pointless as it seems. (Riva’s repeated use of “fucking” as an adjective would seem to have no point other than to spice up some otherwise pedestrian dialog.)

11169813_877721305604741_5122866254570719103_n dfd Best Lead Actor Scenie Winner Huynh (Year Zero, Mysterious Skin) and Scenie Winning Breakout Performer Of The Year Lemaire (Bulrusher) play the only two relatively three-dimensional characters and both fine actors rise to the challenge of making us almost care about these two wounded souls.

Best Lead Actress Scenie Winner Stocking is as watchable as ever … if only Gomez had given her a role with any of the depths she got to mine in Daisy Foote’s Bhutan at Rogue Machine.

As for Gallo and Dashiell-Sparks, the duo do the best they can given the challenges of playing their shallowly and/or confusingly written characters.

11146489_878154038894801_2535661706265093268_n At the very least, Circus Ugly is quite unugly to look at or listen to. Scenic/prop designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s grungy, meticulously cluttered set is a winner, particularly as highlighted by Naomi Bennett’s videos. Justin Huen’s lighting is as marvelously moody as Cricket S. Myers’ multilayered sound design. Mylette Nora’s costumes are imaginative creations each and every one. Edgar Landa once again proves himself one of our top fight choreographers.

Raul Clayton Staggs is casting consultant. Bo Powell is stage manager. JoAnn Paolantonio is associate director.

Circus Ugly reminds us of the difference between artistic and artsy, between intellectually challenging and pretentious. Though skipping it would mean missing some fine acting and a striking production design, this is one production best left on its unfathomable own.

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Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
May 4, 2015


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