Photo by Elizabeth Eve

Circus freakshows have long been fascinating source material for any sad kid who fancies themselves an outsider. It's an easy framing device for observations about "otherness," or our hypocritical response to the things we fear, or whatever metaphor can be most handily applied to a dog-faced woman and a boy with webbed feet. The quasi-reverence with which playwright Carson Kreitzer approaches her subjects is familiar, as she sketches a shadowy world full of sacred monsters in whom humanity and deformity provocatively mingle.

And it's all a bit much, frankly. At times, Freakshow is an almost dishy exploration of the backstage world of a traveling freak show, as characters fall in love and bicker—but Kreitzer's language tends toward the flowery, cramming incongruously ornate phrases into the mouths of her band of outsiders. The effect is to further distance the audience from characters who already seem contrived.

To dismiss the show outright as an adolescent romance would be a grave disservice to Theatre Vertigo's ensemble, however. Amy Newman should win a Drammy for her performance here; as "The Woman With No Arms or Legs," she's propped center stage for the entire production, limbs hidden, by turns generous and peevish, seductive and resigned. It's an uncanny, captivating performance, and well worth seeing. Garland Lyons, too, brings a pitiful bluster to his role as the freak show's leader and mastermind, while Kerry Ryan is strikingly good as a runaway who falls in love with Aquaboy.

The world of Freakshow is a liminal one, ever shifting between states, in which "freaks" are both born and created, and the prim dog-faced woman might drop to all fours and howl. This shadowy, in-between quality is compelling, highlighted by Tom Moorman's direction, but it's overshadowed by Kreitzer's melodramatic impulses—the "Pinhead" with the beautiful voice, crooning hymns in his cage, should've gotten the ol' red pen, as should the more florid speechifying. All credit for this production's strengths goes to the Vertigo ensemble, who do as well as possible by their material.