The Wikipedia page for Julia Pastrana is not for the faint of heart. Known as the “Victorian Ape Woman,” Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican who was born in 1834 with hypertrichosis terminalis, a genetic disorder that left her face and body abnormally covered with black hair. Charles Darwin is quoted describing Pastrana as “a remarkably fine woman, but she had a thick masculine beard and a hairy forehead.”
From there Pastrana’s story gets lurid. A man named Theodore Lent became her manager and made her a circus sideshow attraction who could sing and dance and read and write in three languages. Lent married Pastrana, and after she gave birth to their son, who survived only a few days, Pastrana died in 1860 of complications from childbirth. Lent mummified their remains and had them displayed in a glass cabinet before they were eventually stolen and vandalized. Lent was later committed to an asylum, by his second wife, and died there.
In other words, all the perfect ingredients for a rock opera, right?
“When I read her story, I immediately thought, I can’t even believe this. This is too good. I couldn’t have written anything better than how it happened,” says May V. Oskan. “I was like, this is an opera. There’s deceit and freaks and dubious marriages and possible murder, really theatrical, epic stuff.”
Oskan — a writer, actor, and musician who was raised on Martha’s Vineyard and now lives in San Francisco — is the creator of “The Ape Woman,” a new production that tells Pastrana’s extraordinary story with various actors and a band. Oskan, 28, plays ukulele and sings the lead as Pastrana and also the role of Marie, Lent’s second wife.
‘Here’s a person [Julia Pastrana] who had possibly the most interesting, short life, and the only thing we know about her is what other people have said and written about her. That’s really where the idea for the show came from.’
After premiering the show over the summer at the Pit Stop Workshop Co., a music venue on the Vineyard owned by her father, Oskan brings “The Ape Woman” to Club Passim on Friday with the full cast intact.
Oskan first learned about Pastrana at a dinner party. (A dinner party thrown by friends who are circus performers, she would like noted, because that’s the kind of bizarre stuff circus people talk about.)
“Here’s a person who had possibly the most interesting, short life, and the only thing we know about her is what other people have said and written about her,” Oskan says. “That’s really where the idea for the show came from.”
“A lot of things that were written about her were incorrect,” Oskan adds. “That made it more compelling for me. We don’t have any primary sources from her. We don’t have her diary or recordings of her because it was too early in time. There was only one photograph taken of her when she was alive, though there are several of her mummy.”
Oskan decided the characters of Pastrana and Marie would only sing the songs Oskan wrote, in keeping with how Pastrana’s mythology has been built by others.
“They don’t get to say anything. Four actors narrate the action, because for her those are the people who told her story,” she says, noting that all of the text for the narrators was real and Oskan wrote very little of it. “I mostly drew from primary and secondary sources, from old showbills and diary entries from the men who wrote about her.”
“The Ape Woman” is Oskan’s first foray into writing a rock opera. (“I try to dream small, you know?” she says with a laugh.) When the idea initially piqued her interest, she wondered what shape it would take.
She sought advice from a director who encouraged her to pursue developing the show with music. Oskan wasn’t concerned with reimagining Pastrana’s story, but rather exploring it from Pastrana’s vantage point.
“I feel like I am telling the story from Julia’s perspective, but it’s open for interpretation,” she says. “It’s what occurred to me as a result of reading about her. It may or may not be how other people interpret it, but I feel like the songs leave it open for interpretation. I like the idea of starting a discussion about it.”
She was startled to realize her cast — most of whom she has known for a long time, including actors she has worked with doing theater on the Vineyard — was incredibly enthusiastic about her strange new endeavor. (A live recording of the show is available at www.theapewoman.bandcamp.com.)
“They were like, ‘What do you mean you only need me to rehearse for two days? I’m ready to do more!’ ” The show’s two performances on the Vineyard sold out.
“The Ape Woman” is also something of a family affair. Oskan’s sisters — Marciana Jones and Nina Violet, who’s a singer-songwriter in her own right — are her backup singers and play autoharp, viola, and violin. Her mother, Michele Jones, is on electric guitar.
“Everyone in my family has always been supportive of these wacky, offbeat projects I take on,” Oskan says. “Even when I was writing novels, they were weird. I grew up with folk singers all around me, and I was like, I want glitter. I want theatrics. I tend to find my muse wherever it goes.”