Max Failian's Fabulous Freak Show
Tribe Theatre, 403 NW 5th, 227-3976, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Dec. 16, $15

Much like the seductive powers of train wrecks, car crashes, and reality TV, freak shows inspire both fascination and fear, and that's exactly why we love them. While never especially fascinating, Max Failian's Fabulous Freak Show, "a night of true voyeurism and intrigue," unfortunately never really terrifies either. Director Jillian Johnson has assembled a stylish production, complemented by a live jazz quartet, that effectively conjures a bygone era when it was totally P.C. to point and stare at people with physical deformities. And the livewire energy of Johnson's cast--particularly Ian Hanley's smarmy portrayal of the show's emcee, Max Failian--brings the production to life. But Freak Show falters in that it fails to be much more than a spectacle that reproduces its source of inspiration. Just as it seems to be picking up steam, having developed a number of semi-fascinating characters, it craps out at about 45 minutes without ever really going anywhere.

Inspired by turn-of-the-century sideshows and contemporary mass media culture, Freak Show veers from a celebration of the grotesque (vomit jokes, a full-grown man depicting "the world's largest little girl") to the occasional moment of thoughtful commentary. In the first act, Calliope the "intelligent contortionist" (pliably played by Karen Pilz) twists and turns her body while gushing dozens of random facts, suggesting that our bodies, like our intellects, have undergone a transformation to accommodate the relentless stimuli of the information age. (Her feet dangling above her head, an apostrophe-shaped Calliope quips, "Murder in the workplace is the fastest growing type of homicide.")

Elsewhere, Freak Show just revels in absurdity. When Shimolly-Shamolly the amazing bird woman (Molly Mayo) retreats to her lofty nest--built into a corner of the audience seating--to play accordion and cluck a sorrowful lament on top of a giant egg, it's hard to know how to react. Do you laugh at the silly chicken lady? Or pity her? Freak Show never gives you a chance to decide and seems to be unsure about its own stance on the issue. But that's understandable. Articulating how you feel about a wailing bird woman is no walk in the park.