MicroTheater at the Fringe: The world’s ugliest woman and America’s bawdiest sailor, beautified.

The life of Julia Pastrana was short and ugly; her death long and grotesque. But there was also beauty in her true story, and it’s captured briefly but memorably by a remarkable performer named Jei Fabiane in “The Bearded Woman,” one of the four mesmerizing theater pieces produced this weekend as part of Teatro Sea’s MicroTheater mini-festival.

The MicroTheater pieces, none longer than twenty minutes, were officially part of the third International Puppet Fringe Festival, but also apart from it. An audience no larger than 15 people were led to each of the four short plays, one after the other in various spaces at the Clemente Cultural Center — a continuation of tradition that began in Spain, and spread to Mexico. The MicroTeatro format has been adopted by various theaters in New York. Intar had a wonderful site-specific MicroTeatro festival in 2021; Teatro Sea has produced thirteen of them over the years. This is the first one of theirs involving  puppets, which adds an air of eeriness to most of these pieces (as puppets often do.)

That’s certainly true of the first of the four shows I saw, “Phantasmagoria,” by Cristina Arancibia. Accompanied by ominous music, and  a backdrop video presenting faint gray haunting images, a bent, solitary figure – An old crone? A crow? – walks wordlessly onto the darkened stage carrying a lantern and a valise. She then opens the valise to reveal a crankie –the name of a 19th century moving panorama —scrolling through delicate, gorgeous drawings by the artist Niktalope presenting her inner world. She then does battle with hand puppets and finger puppets of a serpent and a dragon and…is that the devil?

We sat on the steps of a staircase in this former school building to see Teatro 220 theater company’s “Why did the moon lose its brightness?” — and exercise in object theater, and, in effect, a playful light show, in which a trio of dark-suited puppeteers imagines the consequences of a news report that a rocket crashed on the face of the moon.

“Barnacle Bill The Husband” was first presented as a full-length musical by Ralph Lee’s Mettawee River Theater Company in 1989. The excerpt this weekend was a fanciful, elaborate and charming rewrite of the old criminally sexist American drinking song, Barnacle Bill The Sailor. Rather than abusing and abandoning his date, as in the old song, the sailor falls for a mermaid – which is less surprising if you know that the librettist of this musical is Dick Zigun, the founder of Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. The show also features Henry Hudson reciting accounts of his exploration. This was the only theater piece in this year’s puppet fringe festival that featured Lee’s original masks and puppets (although the puppet festival was dedicated to Lee, and included his work extensively in several art exhibitions.)

Jei Fabiane learned the true story of Julia Pastrana nine years ago and, after seeking a documentary about her life, started work on an hour-long monologue the following year – now cut to fit the MicroTheater format. Born in 1834 in Mexico with a genetic condition that made her abnormally hairy, and a rare disease that distorted her features, she was exhibited in freak shows as, among other epithets, “the ugliest woman in the world.” But she also had a beautiful voice, and she would sing and dance for her audience.

She died in childbirth at the age of 25.. Her husband, who had been her manager, had her body – and that of her child  — embalmed, and exhibited their bodies throughout Europe.

Fabiane tells this story with a graceful bearing, wearing bright red sequined lipstick, accompanied by an accordion player while singing (with a breathtaking voice)  the aria Habanera from Carmen, the Gershwin song Summertime, and musical numbers popularized by Liza Minnelli and Nancy Sinatra.

The puppetry is lightly applied – a small bird, which felt like a metaphor for the delicacy of her soul; a framed painting of a figure with the face cut out, which Fabiane used to portray a doctor and a master of ceremonies. Near the end, the accompanist tied each of Fabiane’s wrists with a purple boa and gave the other end to members of the audience, as if to make clear: She’s your puppet.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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