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Alumna getting rave reviews for rock Opera ‘The Ape Woman’

Sep 26, 2013
by Kristyn Pankiw

What do an English degree and circus arts have in common? Ask May van Oskan. A 2007 Flagler graduate, Oskan transformed her love for narrative and her fascination with freaks into a full-fledged rock opera production called, “The Ape Woman.”

The show had a successful run at The Exit Theatre in San Francisco before beginning a cross-country tour this summer. It received write-ups in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Boston Globe, and Oskan could not be more thrilled. But what exactly is a rock opera? And who is the Ape Woman?

With a dynamic ranging from somber aria to electric glam rock anthem, the show explores the true story of Julia Pastrana, a Victorian circus phenomenon dubbed the Ape Woman by her uncommon case of hypertrichosis — a condition which caused the Mexican Indian woman to grow a thick beard and dark hair covering her body. A talented singer and dancer, Julia married a popular showman and toured the world as a spectacle.

“I love injecting purpose and narrative into performance art mediums,” Oskan said. “The rock opera is a very malleable combination of these things.”

The unexpected combination of storytellers and musician invites the audience into the world of freaks. But she didn’t create the show to make a further spectacle of Pastrana.

“I don’t make art to cause argument,” Oskan said. “I make art to start a conversation, and the more people are able to open up about things that make them uncomfortable, the more successful the piece.”

Her hope is that the audience will learn more about themselves and how they perceive others. In fact, Oskan, who plays Pastrana in the production, doesn’t wear any kind of mask or hair to suggest the condition.

“It’s important to me to honor these women by representing them as they may have perceived themselves,” she said. “I prefer leaving gruesome things up to the audience’s imagination. They can imagine so much more than I could suggest with costume and makeup.”

An admirer of risk-taking art, Oskan went on from Flagler to study at the New England Center for Circus Arts and the San Francisco Circus Center, where she cultivated her interest in show business and media, two outlets that frequently exploit strange medical subjects, subcultures and alternative communities.

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