Last April, Crawdaddy: A Freak Tragedy, produced by a Canadian mask and puppet group, the Calgary Animated Objects Society (CAOS) in conjunction with Dell'Arte and Four on the Floor Productions, came to the Arcata Playhouse for two weekends of workshop performances.
In the two performances I saw of that show, Crawdaddy (played by James Griffiths) was a dominant and sometimes dangerous personality, despite being barely ambulatory due to his grotesque crab tail and feet. His marriage with Veronica, the Fat Lady (Jacqueline Dandeneau), was interdependent with their attempts to take and then keep control of their freak show, which often involved murdering other freaks, including Crawdaddy's father.
But there was surprising tenderness in their relationship at first, and in Veronica's struggle to have children (stillborns that she justified keeping in jars as part of the show), and then in their family feeling when Veronica gave birth to Siamese twins, Lily (Esther Haddad) and Heather (Zuzka Sabata.) The two girls, writhing in each other's permanent embrace, were lively and real, and of course part of the show, playing odd and haunting melodies on saxophone and violin.
Through dialog and Crawdaddy's memories, and particularly the stories told by the vaguely sinister puppet L.V. Willikers (David Ferney), more of the family drama was revealed, always returning to the particular culture of freaks in freak shows, as well as the permeable definitions yet ironclad realities of freakishness and normality. So when one of the girls fell in love with a dim but otherwise "normal" janitor, Val (Tyler Olsen), the mood moved quickly between acceptance and menace.
The essence of a freak show -- of the need to satisfy the entertainment desires of normal folk with freakish appearance and behavior -- was a unifying theme. Its power over the family was often measured by how many coins and bills showered the stage from the darkness around it. When survival was again threatened, Crawdaddy devised a one-time-only showstopper, the chainsaw separation of his daughters, which ended predictably in their deaths. In his last soliloquy, Crawdaddy refused to be judged, judging instead his audience and the darkness within human nature which he shared and reflected.
Application to the freakishness of normal life was suggested in a story the puppet told with pride and nostalgia about his father's job testing out the wringers of washing machines by getting wrung through them, and popping back to normal size afterwards.
Together with the music and bizarre comedy, this was an edgy evening, and with themes shared with Shakespeare and especially Greek drama, it certainly was in the neighborhood of the tragedy in its title.
When this show returned to the Arcata Playhouse last weekend, it had a new director (Bob Rosen) and though it had many of the same elements and most of the same actors, it was vastly different. Crawdaddy (now played by Christopher Hunt) was at times vaguely threatening, but up and about on his not very freakish feet. Val was now a comical wannabe freak, and L.V. Willikers (with puppet master David Ferney clearly visible, part of what I presume was some often-repeated, possibly postmodern joke about showing how the tricks are done) was now just a corny performer. His grotesque narration was gone.
Gone also was much of the text and all but hints of the subtext. There was more music (by Tim Gray), fancier scenery and more stage tricks, which a woman seated behind me repeatedly but aptly called "clever."
The show is now called Crawdaddy's Astounding Odditorium, and dropping the "tragedy" from the title is fully justified. The family history and drama, and particularly the drama of the freak show and its relationship to money and customers, is mostly gone. Though the tragedy is suggested when one of the separated sisters survives but makes her ventilator part of the show, there is comparatively little emotional consequence to the separation, and the moment is without clear motive or outcome.
Some fragmentary outlines and residual suggestions of a story remain, but the storytelling is ineffective, lost in a furor of attempted effects, too many of which fell flat. The show now seems to want to be some kind of musical comedy, but it's not that funny, and the music -- while impressive, with some dazzling choral singing -- just doesn't have the wattage to carry a show.
Having dumped the tragedy and actual storytelling, it had nowhere to go but as a collection of sportive bits and tricks. It's odd but not unprecedented to see a show in the process of development go backwards. I can't totally dissociate what I saw this weekend from the show I saw last spring, but I experienced it as largely pointless and soulless.
Coming Up: This Friday, North Coast Rep in Eureka opens an evening of two one-act plays, Beware the Man Eating Chicken by Henry Meyerson and The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia by Edward Albee, both directed by NCRT Artistic Director Michael Thomas ... Redwood Curtain combines dinner theatre with a live radio show on Saturday (Jan. 24) at the Sapphire Palace in Blue Lake. Info: 443-7688.