Huge ensemble casts were a hallmark of 1930s theatre, which was largely driven by government funding of the Federal Theatre Project as part of the Works Progress Administration. A cast of 30 clearly generated more employment opportunity than a cast of 4, so large ensembles became the norm. While the musical Side Show was first performed in 1997, it is set in the 1930s. It nods to its Depression-era contemporaries with 25 characters, which Split Stage Productions fills with a cast of 19, still a sizable commitment by today’s standards where the one-man show reigns supreme as economic safeguard. Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) traces the career trajectory from sideshow to vaudeville of real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Side Show begins thoughtfully long before you’re seated. A 1930s period sideshow poster for the Bearded Lady hangs outside the Apple Hill Playhouse, waving flag-like and setting a tone of the exotic. As you enter, Split Stage skillfully manages to engage the theatrically neglected olfactory with the wafting scent of fresh popcorn luring you under the proverbial big top. Sideshow act posters line the lobby walls, including one for the Invisible Man – cleverly blank. A poster of The Sheik and his shimmying Harem Girls smiles alluringly as you ascend the stairs to the theatre. Inside, music director Joy Morgan Hess’ choice of tinny ragtime player-piano music provides a peppy accompaniment to more sideshow poster boastings.
In a metatheatrical moment, director Jim Scriven chooses to start the show by projecting the movie poster for Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks onto the curtain. This now cult-classic about a sideshow featured the real-life Daisy and Violet Hilton as well as other actual sideshow “freaks” of the time. The curtain is gauze-like, and through this shrouded veil, the show’s freaks filter onto the stage, belting out “Come Look at the Freaks.” They are each damaged in their own way, and the gauzy curtain feels like a bandage, a thin protection against a cruel world that’s violently yanked off as the curtain rises. Sideshow owner and master of ceremonies, Sir (Joe York), introduces each freak, commanding them to manifest their talents, saving Daisy (Rori Aiello Mull) and Violet (Victoria Buchtan) for his final reveal. A tattered suit and frayed tophat complement Sir’s Snidely Whiplash mustache. He is a cruel profiteer who treats his ensemble as property, not people, yet York keeps Sir from lapsing into dismissible stereotype.
The lifting of the curtain and stage lighting highlight the flaws in Alicia DiPaolo and Jim Gracie’s prosthetics and make-up. The prosthetic outlines on the Human Pin Cushion (Nate Newell) are easily visible, and the Geek’s (Mike Hamilla) long bulbous nose is obviously lighter in tone than the rest of his face. These distracting defects are correctable attentions to detail that could heighten the sideshow illusion instead of detracting from it. In our first glimpse of Daisy and Violet, Scriven artfully chooses to elevate them on a platform above the others, visually signifying their importance. They are also backlit, making their height difference obvious. Finding two actresses of the same height and build is obviously a challenge in casting conjoined twins, but Mull’s Daisy is several inches taller than Buchtan’s Violet, and even though Buchtan wears higher heels, the height difference is hard to ignore and takes you one more step out of the illusion.
However, Mull and Buchtan clearly trained in tandem and walk in absolute lockstep. Their Daisy and Violet move with surprisingly natural ease, even in awkward positions where you expect them to falter. Costume designer Sharon Wiant commendably creates costumes that both highlight their conjoined status and trace their shift from Sir’s tight-fisted sideshow operation to the bright lights of vaudeville. When Sir first introduces them, they are wearing little more than thin white nightgowns. In their first vaudeville appearance, they wear slinky red dresses, black feather boas snaking through their limbs as they seductively belt out “Ready to Play” surrounded by a black-suited male revue with red bowties, ready for their audience to imprint some version of a ménage a trois fantasy onto them.
Conjuring fantasies is a larger metaphor for their lives as they live pinball-like, always a means to someone else’s end without asserting their own needs or having them appropriately considered. Terry Connor’s (Tyler Brignone) quick sales pitch lures the twins from sideshow to vaudeville with startling ease, undoubtedly aided by his clean-cut good looks and black suit. At times, Brignone struggles with staying in character. He’s supposed to be in love with Daisy and claims to be enraptured by the sisters, yet while they pour their hearts out singing “Like Everyone Else” in answer to his question of what they want, Brignone looks distracted and unfocused. While Connor does deliver on his vaudeville promises, he’s ultimately another opportunist looking to use the sisters to advance his financial gain and fizzling career as a talent scout. Whether it’s Sir or Terry, both men perennially refer to Daisy and Violet as “girls.” They’re sexualized on one hand but infantilized on the other as not able to properly care for themselves and needing a strong, guiding male hand.
When I was growing up, we weren’t a daytime TV kind of family, which is perhaps why I have such a clear memory of watching Tod Browning’s Freaks with my father one weekend afternoon. I must have been about 10, dust motes swirling in the air as the afternoon sun tried to part the drawn curtains as if we were in our own big top tent. Looking back, I think it was my father’s way of teaching me a lesson on tolerance and inclusion. After all, in the film, the sideshow’s freaks have the moral compass while the “normal” looking people prove to be liars and cheats. Things aren’t always what they appear. Go ahead, peek behind the curtain, get your freak on, and you’ll find something you like at Side Show.
Side Show runs at the Apple Hill Playhouse through October 14. For tickets and more information, click here.