THEATER | “Madame Majesta’s Miracle Medicine Show”: No snake oil from Interact

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Interact‘s current production, Madame Majesta’s Miracle Medicine Show, now playing at the Lab Theater, takes as its subject matter the curious phenomenon of medicine shows, which were hugely popular in the United States throughout the 19th Century and into the beginning of the 20th century. Reaching their heyday in the 1890s, these shows featured highly theatrical peddlers pitching their tonics and cures in performances that often included musical acts and other forms of entertainment, including freak shows, where people with physical deformities were sometimes displayed for the amusement of the audience. Interact takes on the dubious tradition and turns out a fun, music-filled production that celebrates the large ensemble of artists with disabilities in a show filled with music, vaudeville acts, and magical cures that heal all ills.

According to the program notes, the elderly woman who recalls her past life as Madame Majesta is played by 96-year-old Mary Majesta Anderson Thomas, whose father was Native American and travelled the country selling elixirs in medicine shows. In the story, the elderly woman shares her story with her caregiver, played by the incredibly talented Aimee K. Bryant, who then plays the young Mary before she becomes Madame Majesta. (Bryant knocked my socks off last fall in Mixed Blood’s Ruined, and further impressed me in this show with her gorgeous singing voice.)

madame majesta’s miracle medicine show, presented through june 26 at the lab theater. for information and tickets ($22), see thelabtheater.org.

What follows is young Mary’s story of finding work at a traveling medicine show, complete with bearded ladies, clairvoyants, flamenco dancers, and many other characters who comprise the medicine show troupe. There are some delightful moments, including Scotty Reynolds’s portrayal of the slick Dr. Painless Parker, a dentist who “performs” his operations alongside Polka dancers and “dental damsels.” Also fun was Aaron Gabriel (who also created the show’s music) playing Hans, a German inventor who rolls out several “mechanical fortune tellers.” These contraptions, which each housing an Interact artist, dispense fortunes that are not particularly helpful.

When I spoke with director Dario Tangelson after the show last Thursday, he said one of the issues that he discussed with the cast early on was the historical practice of people with disabilities performing in “freak shows.” One of the things they discussed was how for some people with disabilities at that time, performing was one way that they could make a living. In Interact’s show, rather objectifying the people with disabilities, the performance embraces and showcases the people with disabilities in a way that values their talent and abilities as artists.

The production, then, represents the appropriation of the medicine show as a contemporary showcase for artists with disabilities. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in which Laura Mullin, an Interact artist with a developmental disability, plays a ventriloquist’s dummy. In theory, the idea seems ill-conceived at best, but Mullin is hilarious and so joyful as the flirty doll that it becomes a moment of triumph for the actress. Another wonderful moment was the duel between Niño, played by Matt Dahlstrom, and Blubber Man, played by Eric Wheeler. The two men square off in a dance of stomach tricks which were very funny.

The plot of the show is very simple, but it lends lots of opportunities for the Interact artists to shine. There’s also a live band with accordion, banjo, fiddle, and bass (with a little guitar and saw thrown in), which livens up the show as well.

The Lab’s space, in turns out, is the perfect venue for this type of show in that it provides lots of room for the large cast and has allowed art director Kate Sutton-Johnson’s design to create a layered setting of both the medicine show itself and the distant moon that provides the spiritual energy that gives power to Mary as she transforms into Madame Majesta. All in all, it’s a very enjoyable evening.