Though there’s a carnival theme to Sideshow, the new production by Dark Horse Theatre, onstage at N.C. Stage Company, it’s not intended for children. The series of vignettes, each interpreting one of the seven deadly sins, is dark and disturbing. And, it’s worth noting, begins with what many will consider the harshest subject matter — revenge, gun violence, and Darren Marshall with a wrenching monologue.
That said, the show is also thought-provoking, visually rich, surprising at every turn and wonderfully performed. The cast includes a number of actors and artists long a part of the local scene and, from its set design (a Big Top-style sign and a number of hand-painted flames recalling the nine circles of hell) to the inclusions of buskers outside the theater and in the lobby, it’s a show that feels “very Asheville.” (Yes, that’s a kind of cliché, but in a city that’s changing more rapidly than many of us can keep up with, it was nice to hear someone in the audience say to an out-of-town visitor, “There’s your introduction to ‘Weird Asheville.’”)
The play, written and directed by McClain, is framed at the beginning as a kind of freak show. Julian Vorus as an equal parts charming and terrifying ringmaster (with excellent cadence and comedic timing) offers an introduction to the “monsters.” The playbill, instead of matching actor with role, offers a series of old sideshow posters (Human Skeleton, The Frog Boy). But far from being vintage Ringling Bros. kitsch, the vignettes are deft meditations on modern versions of the age-old vices. Scott Bean turns out a lovelorn office worker whose monologue evolves from affable to skin-crawling. Meanwhile, Sarah Carpenter, as a 1920s-era actress, spins the idea of lust. In her privileged-yet-marginalized portrayal, the heart’s longing turns destructive when thwarted by societal constraints.
Barbie Angell’s between-scenes poetry performances add to the vertiginous, Through the Looking Glass sense of twisted reality. But reality is never fully escaped. As the Ringmaster taunts at the top of the second act, and I’m paraphrasing, “Are these monsters too human for you? … Is fear the only thing you understand?”
Happily for this viewer, the second act proved less violently disturbing — though no less of a psychological roller coaster. Marshall, Jeremy Brett Carter and Strother Stingley raise the question of how being constantly plugged into social (and not-so-social) media effects creativity and ambition. Kelly Christianson’s seductive and self-important hostess nods to Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, and an amusing-yet-harrowing trio pairs themes of addiction with the idea of gluttony.
It’s the show’s final scene — Stingley as a sweaty and venomous preacher — that is likely its most monstrous. Without giving too much away, the parallels between contemporary hate mongering are shiver-inducing, and the return of the freaks at the end of the monologue is a welcome reconnection to the flawed-but-fabulous characters in our lives who deserve our understanding and compassion.
Worth noting, the soundtrack adds greatly to the production (as does the eerie, hellish glow created by lighting designer Jason Williams). The talented cast doubles as crew, with McClain and Carpenter on set design, Carpenter also doing hair, and Julia Cunningham moonlighting as scenic and makeup artist. To get a feel for the show, check out the excellent sideshow/freak show-themed photos posted on the Dark Horse Facebook page.
WHAT: Sideshow by Dark Horse Theatre
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 1 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, June 25, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $15