The Ape Woman: A Rock Opera at the Berkshire Fringe
Theatre Review by Gail M.Burns
“Julia Pastrana, a Spanish dancer, was a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead…” – Charles Darwin
Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) was born with a condition called hypertrichosis, where dark hair grows all over the face and body. Today we call it Werewolf Syndrome. She also had Gingivia hyperplasia, which gave her a second set of teeth, thick gums, and protruding lips. She stood just four and a half feet tall. Ethnically, she was a Native American from a tribe in the Sinaloa State of Mexico. Her face did not fit any conventional standards of beauty, but she had an hour-glass figure, the much admired Victorian “well-turned ankle,” was a talented dancer and singer, and spoke three languages.
But she was a woman and a “freak of nature” and it was the 19th century. Her life was not her own and her fate lay in the hands of men. Her birth family was the first to sell her. She was liberally displayed and “examined” by professionals, one of whom declared her to be the spawn of a human and an orangutang, hence the moniker “The Ape Woman.” She eventually married her “manager” – one Theodore Lent – and died less than a week after giving birth to their son, who also had hypertrichosis and only lived a few days.
Pretty grim, huh? But that’s just the start of Julia’s story. Her husband had her body, and that of her infant, taxidermied and continued to display them in a glass case which travelled worldwide. Then he met a German woman with hypertrichosis, married her, and tried to pass her off as his first wife’s long lost sister, displaying her alongside the mummified remains. The second wife, named Marie, was much fiestier than Julia and outlived her husband by many decades.
Julia and her child were finally given a Christian burial (she was Roman Catholic) in her native Mexico THIS PAST FEBRUARY! That’s right, 153 years after her death the poor woman and her son were laid to rest. Finally treated like a human being, rather than as an animal or an object. You can still read the NY Times Announcement of Burial [here].
This true story just screams “Opera!” And May van Oskan has written one. She has composed fifteen songs and performs as lead vocalist and ukeleleist, along with six other musicians, including her two sisters – Nina Violet (violin, viola, clarinet and vocals) and Marcianna Jones (autoharp and vocals) – and their mother, Michele Jones (electric guitar). In addition, four male actors – Justin Taylor, Adam Petkus, Christopher Kann, and Bernard Vash – who speak but don’t sing, play the controlling men in Julia’s life.
The Ape Woman is billed as a rock opera, and if there is anything to complain about it is that the music is sometimes loud and over-amplified, but that is pretty much the definition of rock. Only a few songs approach the painful decible level, and all are clearly sung. Standing microphones, not body mics, are used, and at this point, about a year into development, the show is performed concert style. Van Oskan plays Julia and Marie, with a costume change from Julia’s virginal white to Marie’s dramatic black to signify the change. While her sisters and other bandmates add to the vocals, the dominant voice is van Oskan’s, and she is a dynamite vocalist. She sings almost non-stop for the full ninety minutes of the show.
Julia’s story is riveting, van Oskan’s music is engaging and her lyrics tell the story in depth and beauty. The whole piece is lushly orchestrated. Seven pieces would be a substantial pit orchestra for a musical at Barrington Stage or the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in the Liebowitz Studio Theater at Bard College at Simon’s Rock it is monumental. The Daniel Arts Center was literally vibrating with sound as I entered a few minutes before curtain.
While there is much that is horrifying in Julia’s story, (you can easily find images of Julia – alive and embalmed – on the Web) van Oskan makes no attempt to look like Pastrana. In fact, she is in white-face. The horror aspects come from the story itself, the exaggerated facial expressions and movements of the actors, and the penny-dreadful staging and lighting. Julia’s appearance was undoubtedly shocking, but by all reports from those who knew her she was a charming and gentle soul. The horror lives in how she was treated in life and in death, and women in modern times are just a heartbeat away from the kind of dependence on men and money that controlled Julia’s life.
The world still judges people by gender and appearance. The horrific refusal of hospitals to treat a transgender cancer patient, vividly recounted in song in Southern Comfort, is identical to Julia being “examined” and “displayed” in front of “professionals.” Her body does not conform therefore she is less than human. At least in Southern Comfort Robert Eads had his final wishes respected.
Van Oskan has created a work of great beauty that packs a heavy emotional and socio-political wallop. There is only one more performance at the Berkshire Fringe this year, but you can download a digital recording of The Ape Woman [here] for $10.
Bazaar Productions’ The Berkshire Fringe presents The Ape Woman. Written and composed by May van Oskan. Arranged and performed by The Ensemble. Sound Design | Dave Rice. Ensemble: May van Oskan (lead vocals and ukelele), Adam Lipsky (piano), Nina Violet (violin, viola, clarinet and vocals), Marcianna Jones (autoharp and vocals), Michele Jones (electric guitar), Ashley Clayton (bass guitar), Leonardo Suarez-Peringer (percussion). Cast: Justin Taylor as the Sideshow Barker, Adam Petkus as The Doctor, Christopher Kann as Theodore Lent, and Bernard Vash as Hermann Otto. July 31-August 5, 2013. Liebowitz Studio Theater in the Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230. berkshirefringe.org 413-320-4175
Supplement to the Review
Q&A with May V. Oskan, composer of The Ape Woman: A Rock Opera
By Joshua Geanta
Coming from a large family of musicians, May V. Oskan started as a young, talented writer itching to find her niche. Passionate and determined, Oskan became increasingly hungry for an audience that would respond authentically to her ideas. She turned to music and theater, seeking an audience she could confront, captivate, and challenge. The Ape Woman, opening tonight at The Berkshire Fringe, chronicles the jaw-dropping true story of sideshow sensation Julia Pastrana. This nonstop rock opera exposes a story of exploitation, redemption, and vengeance.
What inspired you to create your show, The Ape Woman?
A lot of it sprung from wanting to tell a story in a format that was approachable. I was, I am, a writer first. When you write a piece, your intended audience might read it, they might not. I wanted to have the captive attention of the people I wanted to reach.
It also had a lot to do with my situation when I first moved to San Francisco. I found myself broke, living in a garage, and without a reason in the world to stay. But I wanted to stay, so I had to make a reason. I had to throw myself headfirst into a huge project, and when I saw the other side of it, I knew things would be better.
So I stumbled on her story and wrapped myself up in it. I started writing songs, assembled a narrative, and about a year later I was on a plane back to the Vineyard for the summer with a draft I was pretty happy with. That’s the same script we’re still using.
Is this your first time presenting at the Berkshire Fringe?
This is our first time here at the Fringe, but it is our fourth time producing the show. We performed two limited engagements on the Vineyard, including one show in Boston, before our first major production in San Francisco last month.
Why present your work at the Berkshire Fringe?
The show is a little different every time, the band and actors rotate a little. It’s been very collaborative so far, and has developed so much. It’s my hope that through gaining this kind of exposure we will find an opportunity to really workshop the show. We’re ready for that next step. I’m ready to put it through the sieve of someone else’s vision. I’m really motivated by feedback. I want to know what kinds of conversations people are having. It’s a sticky point for me when I feel I’m having moral messages or thematic elements thrust on me by art. I enjoy pieces that had to be made out of pure circumstance. The beauty and the message should come out naturally. In writing The Ape Woman, I stayed as honest as I could, and tried to treat the history with respect. I don’t want to force anything, or tell people what they should think or feel. The Ape Woman is the first time I’ve really felt successful in that mission. I used to write a lot of music I didn’t like, because I wanted to appeal to my audience. It wasn’t satisfying, and nobody liked it. So I stopped doing that, moved to San Francisco, started hanging around with drag queens and circus performers, and started making weird music I actually liked. Suddenly the audience was a lot more responsive. Go figure.
Do you have any key collaborators?
Every time we take the stage, someone surprises me. Every performer has contributed so greatly to the arrangement – it’s hard to single people out. If I had to, though, I would say my sister Nina Violet (who plays strings and clarinet in the show) and Adam Lipsky (on keys) have been there since the very first day we sat down with it. I could barely pound out the chord progressions on Nina’s piano, and then there they would go and turn my bare ideas into real music. It was like watching magic. In San Francisco, Ashley Clayton (bass) has played a major role in everything. He is a great facilitator of music, period. Wherever there is a musician in need, he is there. I really respect artists who act out of their truest impulse to create great things, and do everything possible to help others do the same. We’re lucky to have him.
If you were a nut, what nut would you be?
A hard one to crack. Maybe a pistachio, they’re versatile.