Submerged in shadow, we are surrounded by a 19th-century freak show. Ugly phrase, yes, but that’s what it is — a carnival sideshow of human beings whose appearance promises the thrill of shock for paying customers.
Some of the attractions are faked, of course. But one barker assures the crowd that he offers the genuine article, a young Mexican woman truly “ghastly to behold.”
“Just waiting to walk onstage,” he says, “and fill your hearts with fear, fill your hearts with disgust, fill your hearts with loathing.”
More likely, for us it will be her contemporaries who elicit those reactions — because the title character of Shaun Prendergast’s one-act play “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World” really was exhibited internationally, in the mid-1800s, for the delectation of spectators.
The sly trick of this 1998 play, written to be performed in what a stage direction calls “absolute darkness,” is that it asks the audience to imagine what Julia looks like. Listening to a new audio version, directed by Jonathan Fielding for Amphibian Stage of Fort Worth, we can do the same from home, where we are encouraged to cover our computer screens so their light doesn’t dilute the atmosphere.
With her cultivated speech and unruffled manner, Julia (a fine Hannah Martinez) is captivating. To the ticket holders, though, she is scarcely human — covered in dark hair because of one medical condition (generalized hypertrichosis lanuginosa), and with thickened gums and lips because of a second (gingival hyperplasia). “Ugliest woman in the world” is one way she is often billed; historically, “ape woman” and “bear woman” were others.
“Get it to sing for us,” a gawker demands. Whenever Julia does, the loveliness of her voice ought to shame the cruelty right out of a crowd.
But Julia, who is smart and personable yet fits no standard of female beauty, is condemned to otherness in a world ruled by misogyny, racism and general ignorance.
Lent (J.R. Bradford), the money-grubber who hawks her to the masses, becomes her husband as well. This is where the Amphibian production, with its richly textured sound design (by David Lanza), could do with greater depth of characterization.
The play’s most complex role, Lent is arguably — and problematically — more prominent than Julia, who poignantly insists that he loves her for herself. Whether his essence is straight-up evil or more nuanced, Bradford conveys only a superficial sense of Lent and his motives.
To avoid spoilers, or if you have a sensitive stomach, stop reading right here.
Because Julia has a baby with Lent, and she and the newborn both die. Lent has them embalmed, and exhibits them for years: his dead meal-ticket family.
That is not so far removed from the touring shows of human corpses, often from China, that have persisted into our own century — which, by the way, is when Julia Pastrana was finally buried, in Mexico.
The scariest thing about “The True History,” then, isn’t listening to it in the dark. It’s that urge to dehumanize, and how stubbornly alive it is.
The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World
Through July 30; amphibianstage.com. Running time: 49 minutes.