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The Ugliest Woman in the World - Theatre Review

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A sensory exploration in the dark
The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana the Ugliest Woman in the World.

BASED ON TRUE EVENTS, the play tells the story of a poor indigenous Mexican woman, born in the 1830s with a disfiguring genetic condition and sold as a child to be exhibited in freak shows around the world.

The Ugliest Woman in the World, Julia Pastrana

Part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, this little gem hidden in the quiet and dark streets of Footscray is indeed, in my humble opinion, one of the treasures of the Fringe.

What would you do if you went to watch a show and were told to wear a blindfold for the duration of the whole show? Well that's what you have to do in this show. I must admit it was one of the biggest drawcards for me to see this show. I couldn't make sense of watching a show about the 'Ugliest Woman in the World' and being denied the option to see her physically. And so I had to experience it for myself. Was she ugly just in appearance, or was this a way of revealing the ugliness she had inside of her?

At the start of the show, the audience are given their instructions before entering the space.
The Ugliest Woman in the World, Julia Pastrana
Bluestone Church Arts Space
It's my first time to the Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray. But it is a neat little space, made for intimate performances. And don't be fooled by the outer appearance of the building, for as soon as you enter there is a bar for your drinking pleasure.

Beautiful music is playing in the background while we are given our usual instructions of switching off of phones, no photography etc which makes sense since none of us can see anything in the room anyway.

Once settled in the small room, it's like being confined in a box. We are all in close proximity to each other. We are asked to put on the blindfolds, which can be scary at first, adjusting to your surroundings. It is also scary that you're putting your absolute trust in a room full of strangers, trusting that nothing will happen to you whilst on this journey. It's weird to think that we are willing to surrender one of human rights of sight in order to be a part of this experience.

Being blindfolded, the other senses automatically sprung to life, each quickly trying to claim the top job as the new primary sense. My sense of smell was almost hyper aware. And sometimes I couldn't tell if it was the actor's deodorant that I could smell or whether it belonged to the guy sitting next to me.

The company (as I found later in the Q&A) employed clever ways to heighten the sense of smell in the space. Each character had their own unique smell, which the actors, by way of pieces of cloth, carried on their persons.The smell of lavender and alcohol were among the strongest aromas from where I was sitting. At one time I think it may have been the smell of hot tamales wafting through the air, although I've never had one, so I'm not sure if that's what it was. I made the connection purely basedon what the actors were talking about. It smelt delicious.

The Ugliest Woman in the World, Julia Pastrana
Melbourne Fringe Festival
I was interested in how the show was performed, wondering whether it was to be played out like a radio play, where the actors just talked through the show. However, with the movement of the actors around the space, I could only guess that they were actually performing the play in front of us even though we couldn't see the action. I was suddenly aware of the different places in the space the actors were speaking from, right down to the direction they were facing as they spoke. A special mention to the performers involved, there is a definite skill in being able to tell a story through voice, sound and touch enough to keep the audience interested and invested in the show.

Later I found that the director, Peter O'Neill, directed the show being blindfolded himself, in order to create this unique experience for the audience. I can only imagine how difficult this process would have been. Congratulations to Peter O'Neill on his skilful direction.

In the performance I was a part of, one could not help but be aware, not only of the actors in the show, but also of their fellow audience members. There was a group behind me who were giggling and whispering constantly throughout the show, which at first I thought was part of the show, but soon became a distraction and annoying as the show continued. It's interesting that without the use of sight I had no choice but to focus on the constant giggling.

Another misconception was that because I could not see, it made me kinda feel invisible. However the very talented cast made sure that this was not the case, from their costumes brushing against me as they walked past, to giving out sweets, to speaking their lines what seemed like only inches from my face.

One of the eeriest things for me was that the as the show was going on, I was certain that I could map out the area I was in, noting the exits and entrances in my mind. I did this by drawing from the different characters entering and exiting the space, only to be confused at the end when it was revealed that I was surrounded by a black curtain, with only one exit and entrance. I was suddenly disoriented, trying to figure out how the multiple characters walked in and out of what I could swear was a hole next to where I was sitting.

In the end we find out what happened to the body of Julia Pastrana and her new born child. There were interesting questions in the Q&A on motives of one of the characters, in regards to his treatment of Pastrana.

By Jaredzimmerman (WMF) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Women with calaveras makeup
This experience is one of a kind. In the end I was left feeling as if I had been in a house of spirits, who had come out of hiding to tell the tale of Julia Pastrana. It was a haunting experience that I would be glad to re-live. It was a pleasure to be a part of the company's show. Meeting the actors at the end, they were appropriately dressed in black and had Calavera makeup on (representation of a skull) seen on the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. Dia de Muertos is a Mexican holiday to remember friends and family who have passed away.

This show is a delight for the senses, allowing for sensory exploration in a world dominated by choices we make by sight. This was a challenge for the active mind, trying to make sense of what it cannot see.

Peel the Limelight is a Theatre Company based in Bangkok, Thailand. For more information on their work click here. This production has already won them awards for BEST ENSEMBLE and BEST DIRECTION at the 13th edition of the Bangkok Theatre Festival (2015)
The Ugliest Woman in the World, Julia Pastrana

There are only a few more days left to witness this beautifully haunting show. For tickets visit the Melbourne Fringe Page for more information.

PRESENTED BY: Peel the Limelight
WRITTEN BY: Shaun Prendergast
DIRECTED BY: Peter O'Neill
STARRING: Peevara Kitchumnongpan, James Laver, Sasithorn Panichnok, Siree Riewpaiboon, Claire Stanley & Jaime Z˙˝iga
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Kochawan Chayawan
SOUND DESIGN: Surasak Kerdsin
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Why? see a play - deprived of your sight
When: until 23 September
Where: Bluestone Church Arts Space, 8A Hyde Street, Footscray
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