by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday May 6, 2014

Aimee Rose Ranger in "Icarus"
Aimee Rose Ranger in "Icarus"  

If you never attended what was once referred to as a "freak show," you may not fully appreciate "Icarus", the tantalizing musical set in a Depression era traveling show at Oberon through May 11 under the auspices of Oberon resident artists Liars & Believers. As conceived by Jason Slavick (who also directed) and Nathan Leigh (music and lyrics), this lyrical, small-scaled show captures the sleazy creepiness and wonder that made attending these traveling carny attractions so memorable. I still remember as a child seeing Sylvia Porter, the woman with the world's biggest feet, and Rubber Man, who wore a small curtain over his face before revealing it, then hammered nails into his cheek; and that was many decades ago. "Icarus" doesn't have a Rubber Man, but does have Turbo Frog Boy, who hops around on all fours, and No Bones Magee -- an elastic man with a show-stopping turn.

That No Bones Magee is a human-sized puppet only makes his number all that more funny: as he taunts the patrons that have paid a nickel to abuse him, he is pulled, stretched and tied into knots. The human voice is supplied by cast member Veronica Barron (who also helps manipulate the puppet) and she gives this most clever song a vaudevillian kick and is presented, as most of the special effects, with clever, low-tech charm. For the record, the libretto is credited to The LAB Ensemble; the first-rate puppetry design and direction is by Faye Dupras, with evocative lighting and set design by Aaron Sherkow and period-appropriate costume design by Kendra Bell.

The spirit of "Icarus," though, isn't so much voyeuristic as hauntingly cautionary; echoing the ancient popular myth Slavick that he bases his story on. In this version Daedalus is a world-class inventor whose key to success is never make any thing without flaws, otherwise he will render himself useless. Icarus, his son, wants to fly -- both metaphorically and literally -- away from the side show his father has joined in the lean early days of the Depression. The sideshow is owned by Minnie Minoseczeck, a ruthless carny barker whose mantra is "eat or be eaten." She exploits her workers with sleazy bravado, her only soft spot is for her daughter, Penny -- the show's main attraction who flies to the sky courtesy of Daedalus' magical flying machine.

Jonathan Horvath in "Icarus"
Jonathan Horvath in "Icarus"  

This stunt is inferred in Slavick's production, which at first is off-putting. Shouldn't she fly to the rafters to illustrate Daedalus' skills? But once the use of minimalist stagecraft to suggest the magical effects is established, "Icarus" comes into its own. The magic -- and horror -- is left to the imagination.

Icarus loves Penny, and he seduces her by introducing her to Daedalus' inventions -- life-size robots that dance the waltz. He is frustrated by carny life, she loves the attention she gets from her audience and her mother; but when the grim reality of Minnie's show becomes apparent to Penny (in a beautifully realized sequence where one of the Depression's forgotten men tells a heartbreaking back-story), she enrages Minnie; who tries to break up the budding romance by any means necessary. This includes using her monstrous son -- a man-eating creature that lives in the Monster Maze -- to end the romance.

The use of the horrific monster brings to mind "Geek Love," Katherine Dunn's inspired novel about sideshow entrepreneurs who when facing economic ruin create their own bread of freaks. It also recalls Todd Browning's "Freaks" and "Side Show," the 1997 musical bio of the real-life Siamese twins the Hilton Sisters. Its musical voice, though, is more of its period, suggesting a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Hank Williams. "Icarus" is didactic, but it also sings with a gorgeous, rural American sound. Leigh's music, beautifully played by the on-stage ensemble Store Bought Absinthe, has the evocative country lilt retrofitted into a theatrical setting. Perhaps there's a bit too much yearning by Icarus and Penny, but their music is uniformly romantic throughout and is sung with guileless believability by the Lukas Papenfusscline (Icarus) and Liz Tancredi (Penny). Papenfusscline sings with sure-voiced confidence and he captures his character's urgency for a better life. Tancredi also effectively conveys a transition from dreamy sideshow attraction sheltered by her domineering mom to a young woman hit with a sense of injustice.

Aimee Rose Ranger relishes in Minnie Minoseczeck's sadistic control over her daughter and workers; she plays this queen of mean to the hilt. As Daedalus, Jonathan Horvath has perhaps the hardest role -- a dreamer done in by a cynical world -- and he conveys his pain and guilt with convincing pathos. In a number of supporting roles Veronica Barron is terrific, making her variety of roles both immediate and sharply realized.

"Icarus" tells a coming-of-age story with a twist; it has a touching center in its story of children needing to live on their own and their parents that cannot let them go. And it does so within an intriguing, romantic context. It may not be fully-realized (some moments weren't fully explained), but casts a mesmerizing spell. Its faults really aren't apparent until the show is over, which is a back-handed way of saying that this musical has special, magical qualities that make it well-worth seeing. Fly with "Icarus" -- you won't be disappointed. And go early -- the pre-show is terrific.

"Icarus" continues through May 11, 2014 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the Liars and Believers website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].