While studying circus crafts at the San Francisco school the Circus Center, multi-talented Vineyard native May V. Oskan read a story about circus sideshows. The story contained the tale of a woman who was called “The Ape Woman.” It was a story she couldn’t forget, and she has now written an opera about the woman, a rock opera.
The world premier staged reading of “The Ape Woman” will be Wednesday, Aug. 29, and Thursday, Aug. 30, at 8 pm at The Pit Stop Workshop Co. in Oak Bluffs. It is a tale of alienation, revelation, and revenge, recounted through original music and spoken prose. The men speak, the woman sing. The accompanying orchestra is made up of a stellar group of young Island musicians.
Ms. Oskan loves writing and acting, which she has done most of her life. She grew up at the Tisbury School and graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. She completed an undergraduate degree in English with an emphisis in creative writing from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., before heading off to the circus school.
She claims to be “a reluctant musican.” Her life, by her own admission, has been surrounded by music.
“I grew up around music,” she says. “My family was always playing something.” Her sisters are local musicans Nina Violet and Marciana Jones. Her mother is classically trained, music teacher, Michele Jones. Her father is non-musician Donald Muckerheide, Pit Stop owner.
She is still acting. She just finished roles in this summer’s Vineyard Playhouse productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night.” She was the music director for both plays.
Part of her acting training was at the Circus Center, a well respected school for circus performers, where she said she worked on the physical aspects of her acting. She said her experiences at the Circus Center were “designed to make people laugh, and at the time I encountered some hard times. I got tired of being funny all the time. I wanted to do something a little more serious,” she said. “The story of the ape woman haunted me.”
Living on the Vineyard last summer, she formed a band called Graveyard Cats with fellow musican Ezra Lowrey. She said they played a few gigs around the Island, and he encouraged her to write about the ape woman. She wrote a few songs, recycled a few older pieces, built up a collection, and began work on a narrative. Ms. Oskan said that most of her composition work was done on a ukelele, which she calls her “gateway instrument.” She put together some audio sketches using a flute and a borrowed guitar. The finished work is narrated by the men. The 14 songs in the opera are sung by the women.
The ape woman, Julia Pastrana, was an indigenous person from Mexico who lived from 1834 to 1860. She had a very rare condition now known as congenital terminal hypertrichosis. She had long dark hair growing over her whole body. She also had a protruding jaw. the result of a double row of teeth, which gave her the appearance of someone who was more like an ape than a human.
It was reported that she was purchased from her mother by a man, Theodore Lent, who eventually married her. Lent exhibited her throughout Europe and North America, calling her, among other names, “The Ape Woman.” Ms. Oskan made the point that Ms. Pastrana must have been a smart woman. She learned to speak and read at least three languages before dying at the age of 26, soon after giving birth to a child.
Lent, who is surely worthy of his own opera, had his wife and the child, who also died soon after childbirth, embalmed and stuffed by a Russian mortician, and exhibited their bodies for years. He later found another woman with hypertrichosis, whom he also married and put on exhibit.
Despite some rather grim subject matter, Ms. Oskan says “The Ape Woman” is appropriate for all ages. The featured musicians are Nina Violet, Adam Lipsky, Michele Jones, Rob Myers, Marciana Jones, Jerome Badot, and herself. The featured actors are Christopher Kann, Christopher Roberts, Justin Taylor, and Adam Petkus.
Ms. Oskan plans to record the opera to CD in a local studio after the opening run and plans on staging a presentation on the West Coast sometime this winter. She will be moving back to the San Francisco Bay area in the fall, resumming her work fundraising for an environmental lobbying group.
“The Ape Woman” world premiere Wednesday, Aug. 29, and Thursday, Aug. 30, 8 pm, The Pit Stop Workshop Co., Oak Bluffs. $10; $5 for Pit Stop members. 508-693-4219; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The print version of this story incorrectly reported that Michele Jones is a folksinger. She is not. She is a classically trained musician with roots in Motown and rock and roll, who teaches piano, guitar and voice.