Ringleader Barker Masterful Majestic (Merlin Huff DRA ’14) begins by proclaiming the Yale Cabaret’s new production, “Carnival/Invisible,” a show to relieve all cares. The show, though captivating in its gaudy portrayal of a carnival’s energy, leaves the audience more conflicted than carefree due to its distinctly unsettling undertones.
“Carnival/Invisible” is loosely based in the tradition of American nomadic tent shows, which, according to the Yale Cabaret’s website, “were as much social/education events as they were performances” and had their own religious and political agendas to proselytize between acts. In “Carnival/Invisible,” this takes shape through the overbearing ringleader preaching to the audience about a vague future paradise. The cast describes this dreamland, which they repeatedly refer to as “the great to come,” in the overblown, nearly cultish style of a turn-of-the-century religious movement.
The performers ask the audience to forget everything that is “out there” and immerse themselves in the show’s constantly changing, madcap world. They speak to an audience they know is broken, bored and in need of healing, purporting not only to provide a temporary distraction, but also to reveal the secret to the audience’s salvation by the end of the show.
“Carnival/Invisible” follows the structure of a variety show, with the ringleader walking on and off the stage to announce the various acts and to establish order over the occasionally chaotic scene. The interior space of the Yale Cabaret, small and intimate like the inside of a tent, allows the audience to sit on all sides of the stage, emulating the vaudeville shows that inspired the production. The players circle around, personally engaging each audience member. The cast of “Carnival/Invisible” demands, to the point of coercion, that the audience participate in the manic action. The actors run up to audience members to shake their hands, ask them to chant out loud and invite them to sing along.
The performers’ energy is as relentless as it is captivating to watch. The various acts, in turn funny, charming and occasionally vulgar, do not follow each other in any narrative order. The actors make faces, dance, sing and bark like seals. They tell crude jokes and absurd new fables. The show effectively balances these loud, wilder segments with moments of stillness. In a particularly beautiful scene, Moonshine Miranda (Emily Reilly DRA ’13) walks across a completely silent stage, balancing on a tightrope only she can see. The mimetic skill of the cast emphasizes the power of scenes like this.
The show conveys its nostalgic atmosphere with old-fashioned costumes and carnival music, while remaining grounded in a more contemporary sense of humor. The performers will abruptly break out of their histrionic, old-timey language, and switch back to modern tones with perfect comedic timing.
But beneath the show’s glittering escapism, one begins to catch glimpses of a darker, sadder narrative in the way the characters relate to each other. The show creates an unexpectedly touching image of this forlorn “family,” whose dynamics do not always match the image of harmony the carnival forces them to assume. For instance, a comic exchange between two clowns (Tim Brown DRA ’13 and Chris Bannow DRA ’14) devolves into an offstage fight eventually stopped by other cast members.
“Carnival/Invisible” emotionally involves the audience most in these vulnerable moments, though they are often fleeting. In a lyrical soliloquy, Moonshine Miranda describes the troupe’s nomadic lifestyle, saying, “We come, we go. We are temporal like weather and temporary like weather … like you, like you, like you,” pointing to individual members of the audience.
However, when it comes time to reveal the nature of the cast’s optimistic “great to come” near the end of the show, “Carnival/Invisible” takes a grotesque and violent turn. The ringleader and his girl Dustbowl Diana (Hannah Sorenson DRA ’13) waltz together, engaging in a disturbing conversation in which they fantasize about violently massacring all the opponents of their utopian fantasy. The pair presents this vision for obliteration and destruction as the only path to their dream, abruptly changing the tone of the production.
“Carnival/Invisible” presents a gripping, yet not entirely comfortable, portrait of both its cast and a specific time in American history. But despite its almost desperate attempts to draw the viewer in, the troupe’s promise to the audience that “there is room under this tent for you” ultimately rings eerie and hollow.