By Jeff Ritter
If someone says “carnival,” do you automatically think “creepy?” Carnivals always seem to have an inherent air of mystery and danger about them. The creepy factor comes from the carnival folk, who present their attractions as simple diversions and fun games. What if all of that was just smoke and mirrors – easy illusions to distract random onlookers from the darker, more sinister truth?
That’s the disturbing premise of “Spinning Jenny,” a new play by Kevin D. Ferguson, directed by Taylor Gruenloh and presented by the Tesseract Theatre Company. Fair warning, this is one really sordid show – unsettling in more ways than one.
The show takes place in a relatively small area at the .Zack, consisting of the fortune teller’s tent, the midway with the strongman game, the wheel of fortune, the can throw, and the merry-go-round, or as they say in carnival speak, the “spinning Jenny.”
The audience is greeted by The Barker (Darrious Varner), very dapper with a gleaming gold vest, black hat and cane. If you’ve ever seen the weird old Disney horror movie “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” based on the Ray Bradbury novel of the same name, you know that you probably shouldn’t trust him.
The Barker tells you from the start that what you are about to see is an illusion that hides a deeper truth.
The rest of the carnival crew are soon introduced: Margaret the Fortune Teller (Helen Pancella), who runs a much darker game than mere dabbling in the occult, her son Alfie (Maurice Walters II), who tries to keep the old worn-out spinning Jenny operating, and his daughter, not coincidentally named Jenny (Rhiannon Skye Creighton), who operates the ride and attracts patrons with her beauty.
There’s a deeper layer to it. but to explain it would give away too much of the plot. Enter Cal (Kevin Corpuz), who the carnies would call a “mark,” meaning someone whom they can get to buy into the whole mystique and empty his wallet in the process.
Cal meets Jenny, who is expected to run a rather dastardly con on him so that Alfie can afford the parts to keep the old ride spinning. Cal falls for her but Jenny is wary of her family’s deceitful lifestyle and ashamed of her personal history.
She wants to stay with Cal when the carnival moves on to the next unsuspecting town. This infuriates her father and grandmother, who don’t regard Jenny as a person, but as a prop for their scam. As the weather turns (you know how it is in St. Louis), Cal heroically fights Alfie for what’s left of Jenny’s honor, and The Barker shows his true colors before bringing the show to a close. The Spinning Jenny spins on!
The underlying truth of this shady family is not for the squeamish. Both implied and implicit, the audience learns early on what these traveling con artists are up to, and if you have delicate sensibilities on subjects not suited for general conversation, then this could well be an uncomfortable way to spend a couple of hours. If you can handle the depraved underbelly, there are some neat technical feats here and some strong performances.
Corpuz continues to rise in the St. Louis theatre scene, and it was fun to see him play the hero. It was also fun to wonder if he really couldn’t hit three cans from ten feet away with a baseball, or if he was just acting like he pitches for the Cubs.
Corpuz presents Cal as a wide-eyed mark in first act, but by second act, he’s getting wise to the game and becomes a classic hero.
Creighton makes Jenny more than just a pretty face and a helpless victim. She projects a deep desire to escape. She is a relative newcomer to St. Louis area stages, but is off to a strong start in her budding career.
The climactic brawl between Corpuz and Walters at the end of Friday’s show was a little too real, as Corpuz took a legit right cross to the chin. Walters, who is always intense and engaging, was quick to escort Corpuz backstage after the actors took their bows and got him some ice for his throbbing jaw. The fisticuffs aside, Walters is the axle on which this sordid tale spins.
The fate of Cal and Jenny drives the plot but it’s Alfie, a truly broken and beaten man with no hope of redemption, who sparks the action. Walters should be commended for making his character a horrible yet compelling villain.
Pancella, who did a nice job as a cancer-stricken North County mother of a wayward son in Taylor Gruenloh’s “Purple Heart City,” doesn’t feel quite as convincing here. Her dialogue seemed rather repetitive and her completely unsympathetic character’s influence over her son isn’t explained.
Ultimately, the problem may be with Ferguson’s character – maybe she just isn’t as well developed as the rest. Pancella doesn’t rise to the challenge though, and it feels like she’s merely reciting lines rather than accepting the deep-seeded evil in Margaret’s heart as part of her portrayal.
Varner shines as the Barker, particularly as he makes himself disappear during very brief periods of darkness. Even ignoring the well-done lighting to mimic lightning, you’ll be hard-pressed to catch the tall, lean actor sneaking off stage. This clever little vanishing act alone gave his Barker a supernatural element. The Barker also seems to have a preternatural sense of his surroundings, acknowledging Cal without ever turning to look at him.
The other carnies all seem a little uneasy around him. Varner’s polite, matter-of-fact delivery helps create the illusion that there might just be more to the Barker than merely being another one of these seriously messed-up nomads.
The .Zack Theatre itself can be rather dark, and the way the space is utilized lends to the creepy carnival atmosphere, but also feels a little dangerous.
The limited seating space is crowded onto a stadium-style riser, and yet the arrangement makes for poor sight-lines. This is made even worse by the large columns that flank either side of the seating area. Sitting at the end of the back row requires constant re-positioning of one’s head to see anything.
Pancella’s performance was often completely obscured by the immovable column, and viewing the action just off from center stage meant tilting heads to see around other patrons. This lead to some apologetic whispering in the back row after near collisions or blocking the person in the next seat as one tries to stick their own head in a gap for a better view.
The darkness of the seating area also caused some consternation as to whether the platform was level or if you’d be stepping out into nothing. The blessing of a black box theatre is that you aren’t resigned to a single seating configuration, but that can also be a curse if the seating is ill-suited to the presentation.
If director Gruenloh and production manager Brittanie Gunn ever produce this play again maybe they’ll consider an alternative seating arrangement. With the luxury of hindsight, perhaps they could have split the audience into smaller sections, all on the floor level, as if we were queued up in line for the spinning Jenny or a fortune reading or some other attraction, while still giving the actors enough space to move and fight as needed.
The whole technical team – Lighting Designer Kevin J. Bowman, Technical Director Jackie Chambers, Sound Designer Mark Kelley, Light Board Operator Tinah Twardowski and Sound Board Operator David Zimmerman did a splendid job evoking mood and ambiance, particularly with the storm effects. There’s even a little old-school stage magic at the end that works to nice effect.
Overall, this is one of Tesseract’s darkest and most disturbing shows. It’s also worth checking out if you’re the type that doesn’t mind pushing the boundaries.
“Spinning Jenny” runs May 23 – June 3. For more information, visit www.tesseracttheatre.org.