Turhan Caylak’s Ringmaster is the dark tale of a southern family and it’s bigoted, offensive, gun-wielding and unpredictable patriarch – Pops. In the oeuvre of a Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts play, the drama is wrought with unhappiness, violence and a sordid past. Unlike a Shepard or Letts play, the characters remain caricatures rather than believable humans. Ringmaster often chooses drama over rationality and the production is further impeded by its slow pacing – when a gun goes off several seconds elapse before a scream is heard and then several seconds after that, apparently without checking to see if the shot party survived, the screamer walks towards the gun.
It is the eve of the wedding between Homer, the 26 year old son of Pops, and Josie. There has been some sort of upset at Homer’s bachelor party (involving Josie coming out of a room wrapped only in a towel) and all the couple wants to do is speak in private. But this is not to be – they are accompanied by Sidd (the “brown” young man that lives with Pops as a pseudo-adopted son) and soon Pops wakes up and begins wreaking havoc, yelling diatribes brimming with sexist, racist and homophobic remarks, and generally preventing Josie from leaving. The affable Homer is no match to his father and he and Sidd retreat to their rooms as Josie is berated (don’t worry, she can hold her own) as she waits for her friend Dana to come pick her up. Pops will speak about most anything – including his proclivity for magic tricks coming from his circus performing father. Just don’t bring up his deceased wife or mention the ominously labeled “Sickie Room” – not even Homer and Sidd know anything about that closed-off room in the house.
In his program note, Caylak explains his intentions for the production: “I feel there is always an answer for why something’s presented; however, in this piece, I deliberately hold back information because I don’t want the audience to know.” While that is perfectly justifiable and intriguing, particularly when it comes to the enigma that is Sidd, there are some elements of the script that are rather jarring. Homer, who lives at home, has been saving money so that he and Josie can marry – he proudly shows Sidd the $99 (in quarters) he has accumulated. How the rent-free Homer, in the 21st century, can only have earned this much in years of work seems very odd.
David Woodrow is sufficiently incendiary as Pops and has the appropriate physic and prowess for the tyrant. Brett Jeffry is very likeable as the predominantly ineffectual Homer while the beautiful Sarah Rathbun has got the sighing, eye-rolling toughness of Josie down, though her performance lacks further nuance. Kesav Wable and Dani Baum, as Sidd and Dana, are more the comic relief and do decent jobs with their one-note characters. Adam Knight’s direction is cleanly blocked, but moves so slowly that we frequently find ourselves getting ahead of the plot.
Ringmaster does ultimately send a message of breaking a cycle of habitual abuse and looking out for oneself. The drama and characters of the script feel contrived, but this is certainly a strong, empowering final message. (I also freely admit that the majority of the audience on the night I attended seemed to be enjoying it more than I, applauding vigorously at the end).