In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Youngblood Theatre Company's "Freakshow" includes Tess Cinpinski as the armless and legless woman and Rich Gillard as the owner of the carnival attraction. (PHOTO: Megan Peters)

Youngblood and Pink Banana leave the theater with their new shows

Milwaukee theater companies have historically been homebodies. Despite the chronic shortage of suitable performance spaces in the city, our local groups have seldom looked beyond the four walls of conventional theaters to stage their work.

However, two of Milwaukee's smaller and newer companies are mounting edgy work in extremely non-traditional settings this month. Youngblood Theatre Company, which began operations in the summer of 2009, opened its splendidly produced "Freakshow" in a gritty South Side warehouse last weekend. It's a compelling theatrical experience.

The 6-year-old Pink Banana Theatre Company moves into a room at the Best Western Inn Towne Hotel at 710 N. Old World 3rd St. Monday night to stage Stephen Belber's kick-in-the-gut drama "Tape." The audience will share the hotel room with the three-person cast. Only 12 tickets will be sold for each performance.

Youngblood's "Freakshow" is being presented in the Lincoln Storage Warehouse, across the street from the Horny Goat Hideaway, at 2018 S. 1st St. The adventure begins with a walk through the stark first floor of the industrial building while vaguely unsettling recorded sound is heard.

The performance space is delineated by curtains and alternating wide strips of red and white fabric, hung and bloused to suggest a carnival tent. When we enter, we are in the home of Pinhead, Human Salamander, an armless and legless female named Amalia, a former freak show performer known as the dog-faced woman, and the tuxedoed owner-manager of the attraction, Mr. Flip.

These folks work and live in the tight tent quarters, and that establishes the all-important environment for the theater piece. Carson Kreitzer's episodic drama is relationship rather than plot driven. The complicated personal connections among the freak show people form the play's substance.

A couple of physically normal outsiders, drawn like moths to a flame to the salamander and the female torso, add to the psychological complexity.

Often using monologs, "Freakshow" darkly speaks to the contradictions, anomalies and paradoxes that reside beneath the surface in all of our personalities. It reminds us to not make assumptions about people or situations, and it sheds light on the dependencies that often shape the lives of seemingly ordinary people.

An undercurrent of primal sexuality insistently flows through the piece. "Freakshow" is one juicy play, and its tangled psyche makes me want to see other works by this dramatist, who has theater, writing and literature degrees from Yale and the University of Texas.

Director Jason Economus and the Youngblood company have done a superb job of setting the tone and creating the physical approximation of a carnival freak show. Credit Evan Crain (set), Jason Fassl (lights), Loren Watson (sound) and Francis Barrows (costumes) for that.

The "Freakshow" cast appeared to be a tad under-rehearsed on opening night. The actors hit tentative patches and occasionally stumbled on their lines. It can be assumed the rough spots have been smoothed by now.

Much of the play revolves around Amalia, the armless and legless woman, and Tess Cinpinski firmly establishes the character with the qualities she must possess. Cinpinski's Amalia confidently declares her belief in her own beauty and ability to allure, but she also betrays the woman's emotional vulnerability and physical insecurity.

Rich Gillard nails the cynical pragmatism and hucksterism of Mr. Flip. Adrian Feliciano and Benjamin James Wilson portray Human Salamander and Pinhead with carefully calibrated poignance. They admirably avoid sloppy pathos.

April Paul, Rachel Williams and Andrew Edwin Voss ably round out the cast.

The path to the final scene of this single act, 70-minute show is fuzzy, and I am not sure if that is the fault of the text or the production. But the richly conceived characters are so satisfying, it matters little.

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