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Flash Review 2, 7-6: Lure of the Midway
Pinto Plays the Voyeur

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

COLUMBIA, Maryland -- Ah, the lure of a sideshow, a potent mix of desire and denial. Who's not game for a world of wonders, a 10-in-1 show, an outrageous mix of gaffed and real freaks? How do they do it? Why do they do it? What makes them do it? Inbal Pinto, in her spectacular, odd and sparkly dance theater piece "Oyster," seen June 29 at its U.S. premiere at the Columbia Arts Festival, enthralls her audience with a Fellini-esque menagerie of curious human creatures. Pinto's caravan includes one toy ballerina, two life-size marionettes, 6 rumpled world-weary travelers (grown-up versions of Saint-Exupery's Little Prince), one corpulent stage mum (also weary and haggard), and a few freak show acts for flavor. It adds up to dazzling spectacle with neat nouveau cirque elements meticulously woven in; yet despite its visual mastery, "Oyster" presents carnival, delirious thrills intact, without creating fable or questioning the myths and images of secret self it parades before us.

The parade, nonetheless, is truly something to behold. With an obsessive eye for design and detail, Pinto floats dancers across the stage, controlling every head tic and finger movement. Her carnival creatures are well-oiled automatons in white face, task-specific golems prancing and sighing in time to Benny Goodman jazz rifts or the sounds of birds chirping. Pinto's actors and dancers are first rate, technically brilliant and masters of illusion.

A gawky ballerina with a Chaplinesque innocence follows her ramshackle caravan around with a small stool strapped to her bum -- she need never look for a bench. Her companions, the waddling, haggard stage mum and a pair of surrealist clowns (two Magritte heads share one body), give each other flowers and bawl on cue with ceremonial intent. A snippet of life on the road. The side show acts go on non-stop. The haggard mum walks two pet acrobats out on a leash like dogs. Freed from their leashes, they still wander mechanically, foraging for a treat or further direction. Two disheveled Little Princes enter to maneuver the freed marionettes. A small doll woman, cord tied to her waist, falls from the sky to dance with a Prince and walk on his shoulders, floating graciously upward as someone pulls on her rope. (Hey, wasn't this act in the last Cirque du Soleil show?) Then come the freaks: a rubber girl, a woman with a prosthetic arm that extends to the ground (comes in handy as an ankle scratcher), a trio of armless Little Princes and old Folies Bergere rejects hunched in desolation.

Side note: according to Taylor's "Shocked and Amazed" book of carny lingo, a freak is "a human oddity on exhibition in a museum or in a circus or carnival side show." Thus a frog man/girl/etc. was a human oddity whose legs and arms could be contorted so they could squat in a frog like position. This ability was often the result of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an affliction which can result in hyper-extensible joints, skin laxity (such as that of Rubber Skin people) and other anomalies. Pinto satiates our yearning to see human oddity, but stops short of probing the moral implications of our happy gawking. It's guilt-free gazing. No Ehlers-Danlos syndrome here, simply rubber skin people for your viewing pleasure. I myself couldn't stop staring. Pinto never really gives us a reason to ponder the shabby melancholy engrained in the lives of these gypsy circus artists. The bizarre carnival setting offers endless possibilities, as seen in Fellini's "La Strada," for creating myth and parable. In the case of "Oyster," when the circus left town, I was dazed and amazed, but knew no more about the curious creatures than the tricks they had performed.


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