Stripes: The Mystery Circus
nytheatre.com review by Reagan Wilson
August 20, 2010
Meet Pollyhymnia, a woman who has quit her job and parted ways with all friends and family in hopes of creating a new life for herself on the road in Stripes: The Mystery Circus (written and performed by Sarah Hayward). There's just one problem with Pollyhymnia's plan: she is auditioning for a show that she knows nothing about. As a result she proceeds by portraying a number of characters in hopes that she'll play the right one which will land her the job. Pollyhymnia portrays some six characters that are more associated with a freak show than a circus: a woman whose conjoined twin is a soprano singing nun; an escape artist who has mastered escaping bad relationships; a pirate who is nothing more than a series of childhood memories; a junkie who performs the high wired act; a mother-daughter bonding moment; and a bearded lady routine which even Pollyhymnia admits isn't the best.
If you've ever thought of quitting your job to run off and join the circus, this play might make you think twice—about what you are leaving, not where you are going. The audience is invited to "look close and examine the detail" and the amount of energy Hayward puts into the show is appreciated. Unfortunately, high energy isn't always enough as we watch Hayward explore her "sound-crack theory". Pollyhymnia "finds her way through song," healing the cracks in her heart through Dr. Seuss-like rhyming lyrics sung purposefully off key. The device of giving a simple-minded woman simple songs to sing, as presented by an average person (after all Pollyhymnia can be anyone of us), proves difficult when there are many songs to be song. Like listening to a Chipmunks album, sure it's fun at first, but after a few songs, you long for something real. Something you can connect to.
Bad singing is broken up by storytelling and costume changes are masked by bad jokes: "A naked man covered in Glad saran wrap walks into the psychiatrist's office, and the psychiatrist says, 'I can clearly see your nuts' and the man says, 'Yes, but aren't you Glad to see me'." A groan was emitted by a woman sitting next to me and a few people sitting behind me. I chose to laugh with gusto. The joke was terrible, Hayward knows it, her co-creators Marguerite Witvoet and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg know it. Everyone sitting in that room knew the jokes were bad, but they were missing the point. "Every soul is a circus" and "a circus is a place to celebrate everyday life," and celebrating life in this case isn't about acrobats and a parade of elephants, it's about laughing more and taking chances.
Of course like the warbly singing there are more bad jokes than I cared for, but there are a few emotionally honest moments (such as the junkie recounting her love of heroin and the daughter who takes her mom to a halloween party at the senior center) where you can see the raw ability of Hayward as an actress and hear the talent in her voice. A few more of these moments would have been appreciated; however, if you choose to laugh then there are plenty of laughs to be found at the circus.