Midwestern Premier – Tympanic Theatre: “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World” Skillfully Delivers Audiences to Brink of Darkness

With its latest production, the Tympanic Theatre Company dazzles by doing what it does best  — plunging audiences into fantastical and frightening worlds, and suspending them there with a visceral spell of vibrant story telling.   

Listen, sense, smell - but do not see

Not to be missed is Tympanic’s artistic interpretation of “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman in the World,” written by Shaun Prendergast in a surreal, fractured fashion similar to “The Elephant Man.” Directed by Tympanic Company founding member Joshua Ellison, this cautionary tale of what happens when we can’t or won’t look away from human depravity, features original sound and music by new Tympanic company member Maxwell Shults.

This fanciful poster gets you in the mood

“Julia Pastrana,” solemnly staged in total and complete darkness, is running at the Berger Park Coach House, 6205 Sheridan Road, in Chicago’s Edgebrook neighborhood.  The production runs until October 20, with Thursday through Sunday performances at 8pm.  Ticket information here with $15 general admission.

The real life Julia Pastrana (1834-1860) was afflicted with hypertrichosis, a rare genetic condition that causes thick hair to grow over the entire face and body. She joined the ranks of her abusive husband’s freak show, becoming famous throughout the world as the “Ape Woman.” In death, people realized she was so much more than that —a Mexican woman who spoke three languages; a singer and exceptional dancer who yearned to be a mother.

The set - before darkness sets in


The blackout within the show challenges audiences to build their own perception of 19th century Pastrana, and experience the horror for themselves. Audience members feel compelled to turn away from the surround-sound voices and nearly opaque figures before them, to blink back the darkness and disassociate themselves from the exploitation, depravity, and “the culture that encourages this type of abuse,” says director Joshua Ellison.  “This certainly hasn’t gone away today. We are much closer to this than we want to admit ourselves.”

Those not familiar with Julia’s story will recoil as the story crescendos through her son’s birth, both their early demises, a posthumous embalmed encore, and more.  Those compelled to learn more about Julia’s century-long desecration (including stints as a museum display, in a storage box, and finally laid to eternal rest in a Roman Catholic burial earlier this year) can read recent New York Times and BBC accounts.

Slight reveal of the performance, which is shrouded in darkness and mystery

Spot-on casting includes Jason Clements, with a revoltingly brilliant performance as the amorally opportunistic Theodore Lent; the omnipresent Eunice Woods whose fluid voice lulls as an otherworldly narrator, as well as the talented, haunting chorus of Christine Martini, Kelly Parker and Gage Wallace who also play the roles of Countess, Otto and Frank, respectively. 

Anyone experiencing “Julia Pastrana” over the next two weeks will discover that under cover of darkness, you soon realize that your reactions can neither be seen nor judged.  It's an oddly freeing experience that allows you to be fully immersed in the show with all senses firing.  

The waiting room - before entering darkness

View the trailer here for “The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman in the World.”

Tickets available here  

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