A Hairy Proposition

The mother-daughter relationship can often be complex, to say the least. Set in a 19th century Dime Museum, A Slight Headache, directed by Jessica Bauman, explores the fantastical relationship between a mother and daughter, with both roles played by veteran performance artist and writer Alyson Pou. That these characters are connected by their long, intertwined, inseparable hair is a primary problem, but also the element upon which their livelihood as a sideshow-type attraction is based, which marks both the root and split ends of their conflict. This is a fun and captivating piece, housed appropriately in the Melville Gallery, a warm, rustic space of the South Street Seaport Museum (donated for the project), and reminiscent of the historic Lower Manhattan setting for many real curiosity museums of the day, including P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, which once stood several blocks away at Broadway and Ann Street.

And Pou has recreated this milieu even further, by designing an installation of oddities, displayed around the back of the theater space/curiosity museum. Ushered in by the Tour Guide, played by Gregory Cohen Frumin, the performance begins in the lobby as he introduces the amazing collection we are about to view, including the main attraction, the mystical mother and daughter, shown on huge painted advertising banners. But first, he escorts us through the red velvet curtains, to examine one marvel after another: the rare Bearded Piranha, an excavated baby Cyclops skull, the jaunty Crocodile Mummies, and more, each with its own story to tell and fanciful accompanying artwork/pseudo-documentation, also by Pou. Frumin, a New York-based performance artist whose background includes a two-year Vassar College fellowship for research and practice-based theater studies in Italy, is instantly engaging and quirky, less carnival barker than reverential custodian (albeit kind of an endearingly goofy one). Later in the piece he also contributes his skills behind the scenes as puppeteer.

I was lucky enough to attend a performance with several kids in the audience (old enough for the one-hour plus attention span), who oohed and aahed utterly captivated as each oddity was revealed and illuminated by our guide. I felt heartened by the old-time interactivity of this, despite our technology-dominated age. It allowed us for a moment to step back into a time of imagination and wonder, with tales of far-off lands (and freedom from our fact-laden internet culture), a flight of fancy that everyone present seemed delighted to take.

And then the curtains were closed, candles extinguished, and we settled into our seats for the main attraction. Pou’s extensive wig and costume, both designed by Emily Pepper, were spectacular and revealed much of the story themselves. Portraying both Mother and Daughter, Pou switches back and forth between the two roles, setting the otherwise identical characters apart by the timbre of their voices, gestures, and quite opposed viewpoints. The mother tells the story of how her daughter first sprung forth from a tiny bump on her forehead (the cause of “a slight headache”), and developed into a full-grown offspring, without separating from their deeply connected, interwoven hair, which could never be cut. Part tall tale and part psychological exploration, the mother brings to life other colorful characters in her journey, like a nefarious would-be surgeon from whom she barely escapes.

Finally finding refuge in the all-encompassing world of “entertainment,” the mother and daughter have become headliners... as it were. However, the daughter has discovered some (real?) talents of her own, and is less willing to continue on merely as an extension of her mother and their tired “act,” which she is all too happy to try to reveal to the audience. They come to terms with this for the rest of the one-act play, the daughter waxing poetic about her dreams and plotting her escape, while the mother performs her usual numbers, along with the Maestro Matt Falber, who plays piano and other keys and percussives in accompaniment. The piece seems able to contain even a bit more music, while perhaps not a musical per se (although it does harken back to similar Gypsy-esque and Americana themes), I could see the Maestro’s function and character possibly more fully developed.

Illustrating some of the storytelling as well is a shadow puppet sequence, designed by Meghan Williams and operated behind a screen by Frumin. Artfully executed, this gives added dimension to the work, while maybe also being slightly underused. A key item coveted by the daughter, the bearded lady’s silver scissors is shown, but seeing silhouettes of some of the colorful characters as well, like the bearded lady for example, might have proven interesting too. The speeches are well drawn though, and Pou channels the amazing tales via both characters, who we sense almost appearing visibly together, inexorably attached to each other, even though she is often only turning around, or stepping behind a curtain. It’s all classic showmanship, wrapped up in ribbons and delivered with a flourish, even if the ending feels a bit anti-climactic. But definitely step right up for a very worthwhile theater experience, with multimedia of the traditional varieties, and much fun for children of all ages.

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