Freaks and Peeks

From Quasimodo to P.T. Barnum to the latest Discovery Channel show about Siamese twins, we’re always been fascinated with the otherness of “freaks.” They test our ideas of what it means to be human. And they spark a gut-level curiosity and push-pull fascination that isn’t really suitable for discussion in polite society. They are our unconscious made real – our dreams in the flesh. Hence the centuries-long popularity of circus sideshows, and the cult popularity of films like Tod Browning’s Freaks. It’s not surprising that playwright Carson Kreitzer imagined Freakshow as a potent vehicle for exploring the darker side of…

From Quasimodo to P.T. Barnum to the latest Discovery Channel show about Siamese twins, we’re always been fascinated with the otherness of “freaks.” They test our ideas of what it means to be human. And they spark a gut-level curiosity and push-pull fascination that isn’t really suitable for discussion in polite society. They are our unconscious made real – our dreams in the flesh.

Hence the centuries-long popularity of circus sideshows, and the cult popularity of films like Tod Browning’s Freaks. It’s not surprising that playwright Carson Kreitzer imagined Freakshow as a potent vehicle for exploring the darker side of the human condition. And the charged emotions we experience when we look at someone who is radically different.

With its experimental edge and intellectual heft, it’s also not surprising that Youngblood Theatre would be attracted to Freakshow. The company’s last show, after all, was about superheros locked in a submarine raising money for a production of The Tempest. But Kreitzer’s play is rough going, obviously the product of a playwright with lots of ideas, but without the chops to fit them into a dramatic story.

The play is indeed about Big Ideas: power, freedom, and the human capacity for cruelty. And it offers some of Youngblood’s fine ensemble choice parts. Tess Cipinski plays the entire 90-minutes without most of the actor’s arsenal (she plays Amalia, “The Beautiful No Arm No Leg Woman”), but is still a commanding presence. Andrew Edwin Voss is persuasive as a dim and smitten circus hand. But it’s Benjamin James Wilson (as The Pinhead) who creates a truly other-worldly experience. Caged, crooning falsetto nursery rhymes, and peering longingly at the outside world, he’s a creature of endless fascination, provoking both revulsion and profound empathy. Watching him, you feel the possibilities of a play and production that is willing to go to the deeper recesses of the human psyche.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.