Freak Show

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We all remember the bedtime stories and fairy tales of our childhood, all these "once upon a times" and "they lived happily ever afters." And then there are the other stories that start with tempestuous nights and end with the unspeakable, awaking us from our deepest fantasies in sweats. Until March 13 at Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley's Theater, Dance and Performance Studies Department takes us into a place where dreams and nightmarish tales interweave. In "I Dream of Chang and Eng," Philip Kan Gotanda imagines a world where the extraordinary and the ordinary mingle to celebrate the strange lives of two emblematic figures.

Gotanda's play springs from his fascination with the original Siamese twins; born in modern-day Thailand, Chang and Eng Bunker spent their early lives as a touring freak show and eventually bought out their contract. After exhibiting themselves throughout the world and carousing with aristocratic figures, the brothers settled down as farmers on a North Carolina plantation, where they married Adelaide and Sarah Yates and fathered 21 children between them. Building on this biographical frame, "I Dream of Chang and Eng" isn't an accurate tale of what the brothers' lives were like. Rather, it is a commemorative piece based on the playwright's very own vision of their complex, most intimate relationship.

"I Dream of Chang and Eng" takes on the poignant tale of the twins' lives - cursed with a freakish body and forced to be forever attached, they become deeply incompatible. While both businessmen at heart, their distinct personalities and individual goals tear them apart. Andy Chan's Eng seems to remain true to his roots, wondering if the two have gone too far from home, while Josemari Saenz's Chang is washed in good ol' red-white-and-blue. When one radiates both a child's innocence and an elder's wisdom, the other exudes juvenile intrepidity and quasi-monarchical indulgence. Witnessing their ironic fate becomes painful.

The cast works well as a whole, with some actors deserving special recognition for an undeniable dialectal agility, their frivolous acts beautifully contrasting with the play's overall solemnity. Gwen Kingston as Elizabeth Monroe is superb and quickly becomes subject of captivation as she interlaces coquettish wit with sensuality. Chelsey Holland plays Katherine-Josephine, whose eerie phantasmal figure is essential to the play's poeticism. She haunts with her delicate incantations.

Flamboyant wigs, oriental tunics, sumptuous Victorian dresses ... Actors parade an overwhelming mishmash of fashionable trends that transcends epochal boundaries. The stage remains, however, fairly minimalist - albeit a few furnishing items true to the 1800s aristocratic extravaganza - and inevitably calls for our imagination.

Gotanda has wanted to make his fantasy a reality for the past 20 years. With a cast of 19 and lavish costumes, "I Dream of Chang and Eng" is the biggest production UC Berkeley has ever hosted; and only Zellerbach could have undertaken the challenge.

"I Dream of Chang and Eng" is a tale where the strange amalgamates with the mundane, the comical shadows the tragic and the ghostly haunts the living. With Peter Glazer's contribution, Gotanda blurs the line between what's real and what isn't, flirting with our emotions to the point of bewilderment. His dream is bizarre from start to finish. But it's spectacular, too. And as it unravels, we wake up feeling something between awe and woe, wishing we didn't have to after all.


Move to North Carolina and marry Charlene at [email protected]



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