Stephanie Prentice, left, and Elena Wright appear in “A History of Freaks,” part of the 23rd annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at Potrero Stage. (Courtesy Mellophoto.com)

‘History of Freaks’ an unfocused look at circus folk

PlayGround premiere long and talky

The show’s title is appealing. Who wouldn’t want to know the history of so-called freaks?

And imaginative local playwright Katie May, whose “Abominable” (about Big Foot) and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (about an artist and his muse) would seem like the perfect person to explore the topic.

But she crams too many issues into the plot, and the result is a show — part of PlayGround’s current festival of new works at Potrero Stage — that’s long, talky and unfocused.

Clown Joseph returns to the Stromboli Brothers Circus after college and is welcome, but faces resentment among the ranks for various reasons.

He brings along outsider Claire, a young circus-smitten (and presumably Joseph-smitten) coed who’s writing a book about traveling circuses and is eager for the research opportunity.

The circus folk include the good-hearted cook/tattooed man/animal trainer; the formerly conjoined twin/tightrope walker Eve, who grew up in the circus alongside Joseph and is in love with him (but he was in love with her twin); the sardonic and philosophical bearded lady; and wise Solomon the clown.

But the circus is on the skids, having lost its permits at various locales on its itinerary; traditional traveling circuses are no longer profitable.

Also, Eve is still devastated by the loss of her other half; the animal trainer is grieving for his animals (they were confiscated due to PETA protests, and we’re apparently meant to sympathize with him, but hooray for PETA); the freaks have been performing under the big top instead of in a sideshow where they apparently belong; and the bearded lady has been running a strip show.

Somewhere buried amid all this conflict and chaos, college girl Claire delivers a lecture on the history of freaks, accompanied by dim, hard-to-see slide projections.

But mostly the play consists of dialogues among various characters — in a series of scenes most of which end abruptly and with awkward transitional stage business — on subjects having to do with the circus’ financial problems, the true nature of freakiness, various characters’ search for identity and self-acceptance and other matters.

Director Doyle Ott from the Circus Center adds in plenty of circus-style physical comedy, which mostly falls flat, and not in a good way.

And the energies of the actors, mirroring the problems with the script, are generally unfocused.

The most interesting character (and the most assured performance, by Stephanie Prentice) is the bearded lady, a role, with all its inherent implications, that deserves further development.

REVIEW

A History of Freaks

Presented by PlayGround

Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. May 30-31, June 8 and June 14; 2 p.m. June 1, 2 and 7 p.m. June 9, 2 and 8 p.m. June 15

Tickets: $26.50 to $56.50

Contact: (415) 992-6677, playground-sf.org

Theater

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