The last time I saw CARNIVAL on stage was forty years ago although I’ve seen the delightful film (called LILI) many times since. I couldn’t wait to see Gloucester Stage’s CARNIVAL (playing through July 22nd). The productions I’m familiar with have played up the magical, ethereal spirit in the sweet-natured story of a girl who surrenders her heart to a handful of charming puppets. Director Eric Engel’s production is decidedly darker. Drunks, lechers and rapists populate this traveling circus, as if Brecht had gotten ahold of the script.
The outsize comic relationships which surround Lili (Victoria Thornsbury), specifically the magician and his assistant, aren’t funny anymore. Marco the Magnificent (Daniel Robert Sullivan) is sinister and downright nasty and some of his magic tricks have gone missing, to boot. The Incomparable Rosalie (Shannon Lee Jones) is so jaded she doesn’t even wake up when the roustabouts carry her on stage. What could have been hilarious kvetching about Marco’s roving eye (in Engel’s version, he’s dangerous), turns shrill and annoying.
Everyone sings well. Music Director Todd Gordon has seen to that. Because the puppet Marguerite praises Lili’s high C, they’ve cast a strong singer but we have to see that she believes in the puppets without truly realizing there’s a man (the wonderful Gus Curry) behind the curtain. I couldn’t read her at all.
Curry makes the wounded (in every sense) puppeteer a rounded character. You feel his pain and when he falls in love with Lili, you feel his trepidation, making “Her Face” a gorgeous lament. Engel interprets the line about “cruelty” so completely that by the end of Act II, where I should have felt hope for Lili’s unconditional kindness to cure the puppeteer of his despair, I felt they were doomed to a life of abuse.