The ability to create a world onstage is a wonderful thing. And in a uniquely theatrical way, playwright Lea Floden and director Dan Bonnell have brought to life the heat-filled days and the sultry nights of a Depression-era carnival traveling through the Dust Bowl -- thanks to a little help from some smashing actors and extraordinary designers. But there's something missing in this otherwise vibrant portrait presented in the form of a dramatic mystery: a compelling reason to follow the clues.
Headless is dolled out in bits and pieces, the cast members immediately connecting with the audience, taunting us with questions -- "What happened?" -- and answers -- "I know." The story centers on Frank, (Jon Beavers), a conspicuously unstable young man from a wealthy Midwestern family -- one with a dark past no one talks about. So when the carnival comes to town, it's no surprise that Frank digs into his pockets for a peep behind the sideshow curtains. However, his obsession with the so-called Headless Woman (Salli Saffioti) and the secrets backstage raises eyebrows even among the carnies. Well, except for an 8-year-old clairvoyant (Kaylin Stewart) who thinks Frank is where he should be. Stewart is one of the several terrific performers in Headless who is always spot-on. As her mother, the earthy Saffioti is also fantastic. Among the other cast members who stand out of the solid ensemble are Tony Pasqualini and Patty Cornell, playing multiple roles with impressive versatility.
The designers have done splendid work here: Laura Fine's setting, Chris Wojcieszyn's lighting, Audrey Eisner's costumes, and the magical original music and sound design by Martin Carrillo. However, while the talented Beavers is fiercely honest in his portrayal of Frank, he and Bonnell have made choices that don't particularly draw us in and that throw light on the often too overt writing. Here, Frank is so desperately icky that we don't understand the connections he makes or have a stake in them. It's a world that seems awfully familiar -- especially to those who've seen HBO's Carnivรกle. Whatever the reasons, the upshot is that it leaves audiences not really caring -- about what happened or who knows.
Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. May 19-Jun. 24. (213) 368-9552. www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org.