KPBS AIRDATE: March 8, 2002
Okay, first off, let’s get something straight. “The Universal Monster Show” has nothing to do with monsters — well, not the kind you’re imagining, anyway. The original Ringling Brothers Circus was called the United Monster Show. There are villains onstage at Sledgehammer Theatre, but also victims, and heroes in the face of deadly disaster. That’s what makes the play especially resonant at this time. It’s a high-concept historical piece, obsessed with capturing, in exquisite detail, a particular time and place and event. The production takes us back to Hartford, 1944, to the largest circus fire in history. It’s about conscience, errors in judgment and the best and worst of human behavior. It’s a history lesson, an exercise in theatrical styles, an actors’ showcase, a shtick-fest and a designer’s dream. But all the technical detail serves to distance the audience and leave us emotionally untouched.
Sledgehammer has at times actively tried to keep its spectators at bay — disturbed but disengaged. That may be the inadvertent effect in “The Universal Monster Show,” a huge collaborative project involving conceiver/designer David Lee Cuthbert, playwright Tim West, director Kirsten Brandt and an actively contributing ensemble. Like the hapless victims, we’re herded under the Big Top, where lights flash, popcorn is distributed, multiple acts are going on at once.
At the time of the real event, a crowd of 8000 was packed into the stands. When the fire broke out, people and animals panicked; 167 died and thousands were injured. The tent burned to the ground in less than 10 minutes. And it was all due to human error: The water truck cavalierly mis-parked, fire extinguishers not placed or checked, a tent waterproofed with paraffin and kerosene.
West, Brandt and Cuthbert do an amazing job of capturing the 3-ring circus it was — and became — in the hysteria that ensued. But by jumping back and forth in time, ricocheting wildly between characters and perspectives, changing styles on a dime, from didactic explanation to illustration to presentation, we get the dizzying effect, but we’re overly aware of the inventiveness of the process. And we’re told more than we’re shown. Just when we start to care about a gut-wrenching human-interest story, the character gets whisked away, pathos is replaced with comedy, or conflict with commentary. The neck-snapping direction doesn’t allow our eyes or minds a moment’s rest. The chameleon cast is uneven but generally convincing in their endless, cross-gender costume quick-changes. The enormous effort is everywhere apparent. But the result is more intellectually than emotionally engaging.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc