Despite the subject matter, this might be the most joyous show from the Neo-Futurists in years. Playwright Jay Torrence spotlights the grisly deaths of more than eighty circus workers, burned alive one June night in 1918 when their train, stopped near Gary, Indiana, was blindsided by an empty military transport train. Torrence (who also performs, and co-directs with Kristie Koehler) pulls whole handfuls from this historical wreckage—the need to belong to a community, even if it is a community of circus freaks; that life truly blows when you’re a circus animal; the battering of civil liberties during wartime (in this case, World War I, but the modern-day parallels are made obvious)—and jams them back together with eighties-inspired dance breaks, lip-synching to Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You” and non-sequitur references to Shade and Kenny Rogers. The Neo-Futurist aesthetic—all meta, all the time—is spelled out more than usual (it’s not only a meta-play, but a meta-circus), which helps defuse some of the wide-eyed antiwar self-seriousness hovering at the edges. Though it mimics the chaos of a three-ring circus, it doesn’t actually feel all that organized—too many thematic points jostle for center stage—but I’m not sure a show like this needs an orderly structure, particularly since Torrence is a skillful and funny writer. Early on a voice-over explains: “I’m speaking from the bottom of a bottle of something cheap that we don’t get enough of around here.” Later, a circus organizer tries to untangle the semantics of what it means to support the war and support the troops: “We’re not fighting. They’re fighting. But they’re our they’re.” Throughout, we meet the caravan: the bearded lady and her young admirer (played with sweet wit by Lauren Sharpe), the strongman with a soft spot for kittens and an anonymous roustabout (basically, a circus roadie). Their storylines culminate with the crash—and then, like spirits from the dead, the entire cast lets loose to Queen’s “Under Pressure.” As the song winds down and you hear the repeating lyric, “This is our last dance,” it all comes together. (Nina Metz)
“Roustabout” plays at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 North Ashland, (773)275-5255, through September 30.