The Penalty

nytheatre.com review by Ron Cohen
June 14, 2013

The destructive consequences of feeling like an outsider in an uncaring world that can overwhelm the disabled are depicted vividly in The Penalty. The theme also makes for gripping expressionistic melodrama in this musical inspired by a silent 1920 Lon Chaney horror film of the same name.

The script by Clay McLeod Chapman centers on Blizzard, whose legs after an automobile accident were wrongfully amputated to right below the knee when he was 10 years old. Now an adult, he spends some of his time as a cripple begging for change on the streets of New York. In reality, however, he has become a king of the underworld whose raison d'être is to wreak revenge on the doctor who did the amputation. The only criminal activity shown in the play is Blizzard’s whorehouse, specializing in women with disabilities and disease, women that Blizzard sadistically manhandles. His begging seems to be simply a way to further feed his bitterness toward humanity as a whole.

Some of that bitterness, however, is lessened when Blizzard in his beggar guise meets Sophie, a young woman aspiring to be an artist. Taken by his appearance, Sophie asks Blizzard to model for a bust of his face. He agrees, their relationship deepens and then takes an unexpected turn when he learns that Sophie is the daughter of the doctor who performed his amputation. The revelation leads to a uniquely horrific climax.

The show is particularly meaningful as a production originated by The Apothetae, a theatre company started by Gregg Mozgala, a frequently seen actor on Off and Off-Off Broadway stages. Mozgala, who was born with spastic cerebral palsy, plays Blizzard and he brings to this malevolent character a palpable empathy and compelling depth within the piece’s highly stylized framework.

Under  Kris Thor’s direction, the proceedings fairly tingle with theatrical imagination of a high order, further elevated by the score, music and lyrics by Robert M. Johanson and script writer Chapman. The mournful melodies overlaid on insistent rhythms add to the intensity, while the lyrics help fill in the narrative. Some of the songs are handled by the four-person chorus, representing the denizens of Blizzard’s whorehouse. 

The fluid staging is impressive in realizing Blizzard’s loss of legs. The set is made up of a series of  knee-high platforms. While the other actors perform on top of the platforms, Mozgala walks between them, bracing himself with crutch-like canes against the platform tops. It’s a great illusion. Adding to the mood are the eerie makeups and period costumes. Particularly notable is Jacob Clark Boggs as the sexually ambiguous leader of the chorus. Exaggerated pencil-thin eyebrows and moustache plus rouge are painted on his whitened face, while he wears a top hat, tuxedo jacket and brief sequined shorts over thigh-high hose. He’s  an eye-grabbing vision against the three shapely women who make up the rest of the chorus, hapless victims of Blizzard’s cruelty who manage to exude a sense of feminine vulnerability along with eye candy.

As Sophie, Sara Buffamanti contributes a welcome freshness and relatively natural persona to the dark doings. The character develops as a strong but guileless woman. As Sophie’s romance with Blizzard deepens, Buffamanti and Mozgala display a convincingly sexy chemistry, even though it’s expressed in a most peculiar way, reflecting the show’s use of legs and feet as a recurring motif. There’s also commendably assured work by Philip Taratula as Sophie’s father, and the number in which he contemplates his guilt as a doctor is a musical highlight.

This is, to be sure, pretty offbeat stuff, and the story gets pretty grisly. While there are some humorous bits, the storytelling is treated with a respectful, if highly theatrical, seriousness, that kept me engrossed from the start until the final fadeout some 65 minutes or so later.

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