Certain moments from the past decade of reviewing remain indelible. I can still conjure Mare Trevathan's riddling phrases in The Skriker; Nick Sugar's bravura-filled but crumbling Hedvig; Randy Moore as A Christmas Carol's Scrooge, knocked out by the sheer joyous wonder of a household chair; William Hahn's protracted suffering in Bent; Jadelynn Stahl's greedy, sexy Olivia in a long-ago Twelfth Night. These are all superb professional actors, working with evocative scripts. But this past weekend I watched a vital, red-haired woman whose arms are deformed and whose legs had been cut off above the knee, a woman who is not a trained performer, walking onto the Avenue Theater stage on stubby prostheses to describe the process of having her foot amputated — and once again, I experienced that transfixed, out-of-body feeling you get only in the presence of art.
The woman is Kelly Tobin, and she's part of Vox Phamalia: Quadrapalooza, a compilation of skits and sketches by the differently abled performers of Denver's PHAMALY, the fourth such evening they've produced under the direction of Edith Weiss.
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What makes Tobin's performance so stunning is that it isn't exactly a performance. She has a lovely, spunky, warm presence, but you can see that talking about her life is hard; at one point she forgets what she's saying for a few moments because, in addition to truncated limbs, she has suffered a traumatic brain injury. But she tells a wonderful story about deciding to save the doomed foot in formaldehyde after amputation — complete with the three toenails she and her two daughters have defiantly painted in different colors — and keeping it under the bed. (Really, what fiction writer could come up with anything this sad and absurd?) You could cluster her account with those crazy-inspirational stories about women who tattoo the spaces left on their chests after mastectomy, or show up for chemo in sassy, sky-high heels, but it's not show-offy that way. You don't end up thinking Tobin is braver than anyone else, or funnier, or more colorful. You don't think, 'Oh, isn't she wonderful? Look at how she can laugh despite all she's been through.' Though her warm, melodious voice doesn't falter, she lets you know clearly that nail polish doesn't begin to assuage the shock and sadness of amputation. What you see, listening to her, is what you get: life straightforward and unadorned, along with the understanding that Tobin's is the human condition — just as absolutely as your own reality or anyone else's.
Even so, Quadrapalooza is often very funny. There's a slight touch of malice, too, as the performers contemplate the obtuseness of the non-disabled world. The actors didn't have to audition for the show — some are highly skilled, others newcomers to the stage — and the script emerged from their own writing, as well as the writing and editing of Weiss and assistant director Jeremy Palmer. There's a skit about Mother Goose trying to read stories to an obsessively politically-correct kindergarten class: She must never say "kids," the appalled teacher explains, because kids are young goats. The name Snow White could be perceived as racist. As for dwarves — there's a rustle of shock and disapproval at the very word. Mark Dissette comes up with a hilarious bit about all the things that can go wrong during a PHAMALY performance, from an actor's hearing aid picking up KOA radio to "a four-foot-tall, 52-year-old woman falling headfirst into the orchestra pit." Briana Berthiaume lets us know how she felt when a doctor told her that her Alport's Syndrome meant she was unlikely to live past 45 or so, and added consolingly, "Hey, you're still pretty." The song "Medicaid Pie," sung to the tune of "American Pie," illustrates Don Gabenski's dilemma: He has too little money to afford the care he needs, too much to qualify for Medicaid.
PHAMALY's full-scale musicals are glittering affairs with great sound, well-designed sets, costumes specially made to fit around wheelchairs or contorted limbs. Here you get the bodies, songs, jokes and stories undisguised, as well as the actors' joy in working with each other, speaking to audiences, evoking laughter. "Laughter breaks barriers," says director Weiss. "If you can make them laugh, that's going to form an understanding. You touched someone's intelligence and heart and brain — maybe somebody who couldn't look at somebody like you before. People have averted their eyes for so many years, but here you are, right on that stage. The bravery of that is just implicit in the material."
And then she adds, "Though we don't even like words like 'bravery.'"