Writer: Alex Byrne
Director: Kasia Zaremba-Byrne
The circus is the work of the devil.
It’s difficult to disagree with Mary-Ann Haynie’s intensely religious aunts. Death-defying acts, beasts, manipulation, scintillating beauty, and an uncanny ability to part hungry audiences with their hard-earned dollars; may be a work of the devil, but Dead Rabbit Theatre’s Tiger Lady is a ferocious being of a more mortal and earthly design.
Elephants, Tigers, and Lions – the life of the circus flitters in the wind and imaginations of young Mary-Ann, soon to be known as Mabel Stark; the first-female Tiger training West of the Atlantic. And though at first cast as a dancer, the thrill of working with Big Cats soon lands Mabel a spot with these large pawed and clawed creatures.
Movement, live music, and ingenuity with puppetry – where the mirage of an Elephant work to further a sense of awe and wonder – much of Dead Rabbit’s production uses illusionary techniques to form a narrative as Mabel traverses train carts and tight-ropes in her ambitions to train these cats, resulting in being presented with a cub of her own – Rajah.
It’s all sold by the circus magic of the cast, skilled in the arts of deception and misdirection to offer enhancement in the most unexpected and effective ways. Whether the sweeping shores of San Francisco or the towering might of the big tent animal, though engaging, the significant drawback is the reliance on this stage magic, where Mabel’s story begins to play the second chair to gimmickry and ultimately loses focus on where the foundations of the story arose.
But there remains a sincerity, where the remainder of the cast and characters have a more playful visage – Natisha Samuel-Williams’s titular Tiger Lady and Abayomi Oyinide’s circus performer/romantic interest for Mabel elevate and offer a snippet of where the narrative ought to be headed. Their chemistry stretches beyond the limitations of a short production and offer the presumed peak into the life of Mabel Stark.
There are no meows or mewing, but roars and purrs of ambitious physicality and comedic moments. Where Tiger Lady may slip from the life of Mabel Stark when it does return to the first female Tiger trainer, there’s a uniquely personal angle of with Samuel-William’s performance, rousing a morbid – if fairy-tale fitting conclusion, of the awaiting danger of these remarkable creatures, and the peril of those who misunderstand their beauty.
But for a woman celebrated for being the first to strike out in a field dominated by men, the showbiz aesthetic of the show becomes a force too significant to overcome. Blending physical feat with circus stagecraft and puppetry, Dead Rabbits’ endeavour to shine the light on an unsung woman is an inventive visual piece, which misses the mark on telling her story.
Tiger Lady runs at The Pleasance Courtyard, Above, from august 4th – 29th (not 17th, 22nd) 2022