Theater Review - Geek as folk

Sensurround falls head over flippers for Geek Love

Actors can go to extremes to get into character, but the cast of Sensurround Staging’s Geek Love deserve The Purple Heart — or maybe that should be The Purple Hump. To stage Katherine Dunn’s novel about a family of sideshow performers and their outlandish admirers, Sensurround’s ensemble will disappear beneath unnerving make-up, costumes and physical restraints.

As Olympia, the diminutive albino who narrates the show, Anessa Ramsey shrugs beneath a hunch back. Olympia’s daughter Miranda (Rachel Sorsa) shows off a curly vestigial tail. Charlie Burnett, as Arturo the Flipper Boy, wags fishy fins instead of human limbs. Dolph Amick’s “Bagman” may have the grisliest appearance — a gunshot took away half his face.

Dunn’s novel has enjoyed a national cult following since its 1989 publication, and its film rights have passed from actor/magician Harry Anderson to David Lynch to Tim Burton. In November 2002 Sensurround Stagings secured the rights to the theatrical version, and the small local troupe has faced challenges on all fronts — financial, logistical and creative — to present Geek Love in the flesh at its Jan. 8 world premiere.

Director Aileen Loy says that one of the hardest parts was simply giving herself permission to adapt the novel. “Geek Love is one of my favorite books, and seeing it dismantled and put onstage by anybody — let alone by me — daunted me,” says Loy, who wrote the script with co-artistic director Mike Katinsky. “But once we wrote a first draft, I realized, ‘This isn’t a sin — it’s a good thing.’”

Loy and Katinsky shortened the story while cutting back and forth in time to give the material a dream-like quality. Geek Love follows a pair of carnival parents (Josie Burgin Lawson and Tim Cordier) who deliberately cause birth defects in their children to spawn a family of circus freaks. Initially Geek Love holds a kind of fun-house mirror up to family normalcy, but the plot takes a darker turn when Arturo becomes a messianic figure to his self-mutilating followers.

To transform able-bodied actors into Geek Love’s characters requires the combination of prosthetics built by puppeteer Chris Brown, specialized costumes by Tina Hillesheim and Brown’s wife Evita Smith, and “set pieces” by designer Charles “Oz” Dillman, which feature hidden sections to conceal arms or legs. The preparation requires careful coordination.

“The casting, the prosthetics, the costumes and the set pieces can’t be independent: Olympia’s hump has to fit with her costume, Arturo’s prosthetics have to go with his wheelchair and water tank, and so on,” says Katinsky.

More than half of the show’s 13 actors require some kind of prosthesis, including the body suits that attach Caroline Masclet to Kalina McCreery so they can play conjoined twins. “We’re like this,” says Masclet, holding her hand up to within inches of her face. “I’ve never been this close to anybody in my life, and she and I are very different people. We make it believable that we’ve been together for our entire lives. When we walk, we have to decide which foot starts first.” Masclet has even given McCreery piano lessons so the duo can play four-handed piano during the play.

Some of the amputee characters only require “universal” prosthetics — fake stumps that Chris Brown “cranks out” in one night. The more specialized pieces he tailors to individual actors, beginning with a plaster life-cast of their bodies. From that, Brown customizes pieces such as Burnett’s flipper-harness, which resembles a straightjacket.

“The biggest challenge is taking fully-limbed actors and giving them the illusion that they’re missing limbs. There are only so many places the arms can go,” says Brown.

Geek Love’s effects will illustrate the differences between stage and cinematic effects, Brown continues. “On stage, you don’t have the joy of camera angles, but you do have the joy of showing things at a distance, and there will be some use of shadows and sleight of hand.”

Brown is also designing puppets for the production, including the Binewski’s enormous baby, Mumpo the Mountain. Brown says, “If I made it correctly, the gluttonous baby will be so disturbing that you wouldn’t be able to be alone in the same room with it.”

A theatrical Geek Love calls for an evening of nightmarish effects, including “the jar kids” — malformed, stillborns the Binewskis keep in jars (designed by Kevin Huey). Katinsky says the book’s combination of family love and grotesque behavior inspires both adoration and revulsion in its readers, so Sensurround is taking care not to push the stage effects too far. “I don’t think we’ve softened the material, but more events happen off-stage,” he says. “When you’re reading a book, you can put it down if you’re disturbed, but you don’t have that option with live theater.”

So seeing Geek Love, in addition to performing in it, is not for the faint of heart.