Photo by Dave Rzeszutek
There are certainly moments of brilliance in SVSU’s production of Jay Torrence’s 2006 play “Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck.” Ostensibly, the show is a fictionalized retelling of the Great Hammond Train Wreck of 1918; a circus train that stopped on the tracks for a repair was struck by a military train whose operator had fallen asleep. The train immediately caught fire and at least 86 performers were killed and another 127 injured - 53 bodies were never identified or claimed. From a powerful opening scene concentrating on a nameless “roustabout” on his first day at the circus to a genuinely moving conclusion, the show is bookended nicely by the things one would like to see in a comedy about a deadly train wreck - dark humor, strong acting, and unique visuals that focus on the practical rather than the flashy. Unfortunately the 90-minute script also contains a good deal of content bordering on the nonsensical, including multiple appearances of a Sade/Kenny Rogers hybrid who acts as the actors’ mentor in a truly bizarre framing device for the play-within-a-play. This is a script that badly needed some editing.
The six performers, each taking on several roles, are a lot of fun to watch, and clearly worked on capturing that manic circus energy. Standouts were Holly Houck and Aaron Klama. Dee Dee wanted to be a sideshow performer, but she was too “normal;” Houck’s interpretation was fun and sensitive, and showed excellent physicality especially in her dance numbers. Max was a strong man with a heart of gold; Klama made him nuanced and lovable, and his character arc was perhaps the most clear. The third victim was played by Jared Kaufman; he was the nameless Roustabout who opens and closes the show, and he performed well in that pivotal role. Lane Birchmeier portrayed the Ringleader among others, Scott LaMont played Thomas Edison and others, and Erica Close performed as the Clown as well as several smaller roles. Close was a comedic highlight of the evening with her clown scenes. It’s very challenging to play three or four roles in one show, but with so much going on it would have been helpful to see stronger character choices from the actors. Opening night jitters may have lended to issues with diction, especially in the informational scenes where it seemed like they were trying to rush. All of the actors across the board, however, displayed amazing physicality. From performing the excellent choreography by Peggy Mead-Finizio to assembling the minimal sets to running, jumping, and climbing, they showcased a commitment that was truly joyful.
I liked the set designed by Jerry Dennis; everything had that lovely old-time circus feel, the crates were practical and used well by Director Dave Rzeszutek’s staging, and the Fiction/Nonfiction boards were very clever. Rzeszutek does a good job with blocking and action sequences, and he keeps the pace moving (although I was missing an intermission partly just because there was so much to digest even though the show isn’t a long one.) The sound design by Lucas Inman was excellent, and I’m going to assume that the odd song choices were written into the script and not selected. Lights by Jaden O’Berry were very well timed and challenging, with several spots that were used perfectly as well as some effects lighting. I did wish that Hair and Makeup by Rebecca Dubs and Costumes by Karlie Sherwood had gone a bit more out of the box - the workout clothes in particular seemed out of place both for modern day actors and 1918 circus performers. Props by Melanie Frasca and Alyssa Yankee were nicely done.
Overall I think the scenes that clicked were really nice - the darkly humorous atmosphere of the Topsy scene, for example, or the intense final 15 minutes of the show are exactly what I would have hoped for from the description. The story of the train wreck, told through the imagined lives of the victims and interspersed with circus effects should be compelling, but there’s so much time devoted to wacky framing devices and stoner-esque musings that “war is bad,” we don’t get enough of a chance to spend time with the circus and really develop those characters. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a play like “Roustabout” before - if you’re into the esoteric and strange, this may be a good fit for you. There’s certainly been some good work done by these actors, and some creative choices by the crew. “Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck” runs from February 20-23; tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the box office or online at svsu.edu/theatre