Photo by Dave Rzeszutek
Full disclosure: this is going to be a tricky review to write. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, this is a show that absolutely needs to be experienced in the moment, surrounded by fellow audience members. So before we dive in I just need to say one thing about this production running this week at Saginaw Valley State University, GO SEE IT!
Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck! is written by Jay Torrence, a Chicago-based playwright who wrote the play for the experimental theatre troupe the Neo-Futurists. It takes us on three journeys. The first journey is a group of actors getting ready to perform a play that has no script. The second journey is historical fact: the story of the 1918 collision of a military train with railway cars belonging to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus outside Hammond, Indiana. Eighty-seven of the circus people were killed and many of the dead were never identified. The third journey is historical fiction, but still deals with the circus train. Torrence expands the lives of three of the unknown performers that perished in the crash. The beauty of this narrative device is that at first you think all three stories will exist separately throughout the play, but they all converge at the very end for the “grand finale.”
Director David Rzeszutek has assembled a cast of six performers that get to really stretch their muscles throughout this performance. All six play themselves as well as various circus performers, sometimes changing roles in an instant. While they work wonderfully as an ensemble, they also each get the chance to shine individually. Lane Birchmeier is especially effective as the Ringleader of the circus, welcoming a new employee (Jared Kaufman) onboard at a stop just before the crash. Birchmeier also excels when telling the story of a very unexpected character, Topsy the Circus Elephant. Kaufman plays the titular Roustabout (a casual laborer charged with the setting up and taking down the circus tents) and also gets plenty of laughs as Dietrix, one third of a strong man act. Aaron Klama and Scott LaMont round out the strong men as Max and Sam in addition to portraying multiple others throughout the play. LaMont is creepily effective as Thomas Edison, whose nefarious plans mean an unfortunate end for Topsy. We are visited by a clown played by Erica Close in several interstitial scenes, each more funny than the last. Close shows such great comedic timing and chemistry with the audience that each time we saw her enter with her red nose on, most of the audience was already laughing. Holly Houck nearly steals the show with the heartbreaking story of Dee Dee, who longs to be part of the circus’ freak show. Her interactions with the Bearded Lady (Birchmeier) could have easily been played for comedy, but were so emotionally strong and resonating that the audience sat with bated breath while watching them. On top of all of that, the actors attacked each and every step of Peggy Mead-Finizio’s funny and touching choreography with gusto. One minor quibble; some of the historical facts were delivered at a rapid fire pace. That speed sometimes didn’t allow the audience to quite catch all of the information the first time around but most of it was touched on repeatedly so it was eventually understood. Regardless, this was a cast that was fully immersed and the story practically burst from the stage.
Technical elements were also handled beautifully for such a unique show. Performing primarily on an almost bare stage, scenic designer Jerry Dennis populated the stage with several era-appropriate posters for the various circus acts, as well as light-adorned signs that alerted the audience when we were seeing a story that was historical fact or historical fiction. Costume designer Karlie Sherwood was presented with a similar challenge. All six actors wear t-shirts and black pants and only put on small costume pieces to transform into a certain character. Sherwood’s clever use of these pieces allow for quick and effective transitions between characters. The real star of the show from a design perspective were the lighting and sound design by Jaden O’Berry and Lucas Inman, respectively. O’Berry was tasked with lighting an almost bare stage and managed to keep each and every scene alive and visually stimulating to watch. Inman blended the different worlds of the play by combining early 20th century music with more contemporary music during the emotional moments. A bit jarring to hear at first, but really sets the tone of the piece as you continue watching.
I assure you, this is unlike any theatrical experience you’ve had before. Major kudos to David Rzeszutek and his cast and crew for tackling this thought-provoking and very funny show. Go see this show, sit back, and just enjoy the ride. I guarantee you will love the unexpected destination it takes you.
Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck! runs through Sunday, February 23rd at SVSU’s Malcolm Field Theatre. Tickets are $15 and are available either online (https://www.etix.com/ticket/v/14187) or at the box office two hours prior to curtain.