In your words
Not many of us were alive to experience migrating freak shows in their natural habitat, but the Seattle-based Circus Contraption understands that we carry a deep memory of them in our cultural DNA. This tight-knit ensemble fulfills every child's fantasy of seeing the creepy, dusty relics stashed in musty old corners come to vivid life.
The company's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum, its third full-lenth endeavor (and NYC debut), is a kising cousin to knowingly eerie Victoriana like Shockheaded Peter, but it's doused with a distinctly American snake oil. The house band (which for my money kicks the asses of Peter's Tiger Lillies) emits a hot, jazzy oompah as the titular museum's exhibits (pickled punks, flying fortune tellers, sick ostriches, unicycling cavemen) frolic in the air, on the ground and all over the intricate, quasiconstructivist set.
The line betweeen circus and theater is sublimely straddled, such as when "necrobatte" Acrophelia (Evelyn Bittner) escapes from a glass case and, after singing a haunting song about her life (or lack thereof), gets tossed repeatedly into the air by her smitten keeper (Jason Williams) before returning to the display. The confluence of story and stunt is so good that other bits, displaying technical aplomb though lacking drama, suffer in comparison. But it's ungrateful to grouse: The show offers enough moments of pure genius to make even the most hardened urbanite pine for old, weird America.
Sheer demented delight
If you're anything like me, "alternative circus" conjures up tedious images of half-naked techno-pagans juggling their genital piercings in a freezing, filthy warehouse. But I'm willing to wager a two-headed fetus floating in a jar of gin that Circus Contraption will fling your coulrophobia* onto their vaudevillian jalopy and drive you down a dizzying drop past reason into sheer demented delight.
The warehouse in Sand Point that functions as their home is neither filthy nor freezing, but rather lovingly rendered through seat-of-their-baggy-striped-pants stagecraft into a comfortable and believable big top. There, to the lurching strains of a ghoulishly attired band pickled in equal parts klezmer and Cabaret, the talented troupe daintily tiptoes en pointe past cheap and easy ironic commentary and right into the open arms of the fat lady. As noble and foolhardy as tightrope walkers in a windstorm, each night they bring to life the thrilling, titillating spectacle of a circus from a distant time--complete with ringmaster, freaks, juggling, astounding acrobatics, and dancing ladies in subtly suggestive attire.
Don't get me wrong--these aren't dusty wax mannequins from an educational display at the midway museum. Darty Kangoo, the tattooed diva spinning 25 feet in the air from a shred of silk wrapped around her foot, introduces herself as "an imperious bitch." And the animal jumping--uh, rather, crawling through that hoop is an eyeless invertebrate. And Pinky D'Ambrosia, the opera diva, is warbling about "shaping pancakes" and "soaking risotto."
Certainly these moments are self-consciously surreal (my favorite: "Hello, Acrophelia--I'm just on my way to give the aardvarks their weekly shot of ketamine!"). Nonetheless, I can't help believing that they're tantalizingly close to the source, not the simulacrum. If you ask me, Tim Burton would sell what's left of his soul for just a sip of the vintage strain of vaudeville running through the veins of this anarchic troupe.
*coulrophobia = fear of clowns
Circus Contraption just keeps getting better
It is amazing how one group of performers can turn the same space that other performers have used into a place where magic happens. But then, Circus Contraption is not your run-of-the-mill performance group, and with their retinue of acrobatic acts, jugglers and other assorted mayhem the Sand Point Naval Base (where the current show went up last week) is the perfect venue.
A group who keeps getting better each time they perform and which has a huge and growing fan base, Circus Contraption's newest show, A Raree Show, offers even more thrills than their fall show, Beer, Bread and Cheese Cabaret.
Complete with dancing aardvarks, real hoochie kootchie dancers (who look as if they belong in one of those '30's "gin joints") and their signautre aerial show, this performance is one heck of an experience. It's louder than loud and in your face at all times. Definitely not for those who prefer to sit quietly and watch, this group will cross that "safe" line between audience and performers and drag innocents onto the stage as they did last Friday night.
Most notable about the new show is the addition of some heart-stopping aerial acts by Darty Kangoo, and "The Managerie" (which includes a "beetle girl" and a "mantis girl" as well as an "inchworm"). Unpretentious and always on the edge of mayhem and order, Circus Contraption also made some astute political commentaries as part of their new show. It made me think of the scene in Cabaret where Joel Grey is poking fun at the Nazis as part of his act with the girl in the gorilla suit.
Thought provoking? Certainly. Maudlin and too serious? Never! These guys know when to drop in a political jibe and when to just step back and let the audience have fun. Oh, and the girls are just too sexy in carny attire, with attitude to burn but enough sense to keep it real.
This show ["...all fall down"] is deliciously sinister. The performers wear white clown makeup that suggests ghoulishness more than foolishness. Trapeze work, Spanish web (dangling rope) tricks, tumbling and juggling are good-to-marvelous. But even when three wraiths juggle wondrous glowing red balls in the dark, the atmosphere is eerie. Schoolgirl bullies, wearing smiley masks and frilly Victorian underthings, are terrific aerialists.
And the perky little lady who takes her dolly for a picnic? Well, the dolly is a monster. And the picnic consists of raw liver! An onstage quintet, sounding perhaps like the last surviving klezmer band in outback Paraguay, underscores the general weirdness.
Circus Contraption is one of a kind
It's Cirque du Soleil meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Well... no. Ok, then it's Judy (during the pill years) and Mickey (before the insurance ads) put on a show in the local barn. No, that's not it either. The evil illegitimate offspring of the Flying Karamazov Brothers and an overly-limber dancer from the downtown Deja Vu? Hmm... maybe. Whatever comparisons come to mind, Circus Contraption's A Raree Show certainly fits them, in some respects, and regardless of what it may resemble, it's one helluva a show.
Claiming to be the antidote to "monoculture," the Contraptioneers have put on a twisted, almost Tim Burton-esque version of an old-fashioned circus. Though handling things like queueing, ticketing and crowd control seem to be just a bit out of their area of expertise, the multi-talented cast does a little bit of just about everything else. Assembled from a miscellaneous bunch of mostly-youngish buskers, neo-vaudevillians, acrobats and smart-asses, the performers do trapeze acts, juggle, play music and occasionally slip in a terrible joke or two.
The show starts with the "Midway," set up in a lobbyish area outside the main show area. you can have your weight or age guessed, watch a hoochie-coochie girl routine, buy cotton candy from a girl on stilts, and play an adult version of a ring toss, among other things. Meant to be part of the show, it unfortunately doesn't quite hold one's attention for the hour it takes until the sit-down portion of the show begins.
The second act is where the real show starts, beginning with a puppeteer whose puppet runs off, and running through a gamut of circus acts, all backed by original klezmerish music from the show's live band (whose members occasionally perform in other parts of the show as well.) The show even includes some "animal acts," though the Contraptioneers assure the audience that the "animals" are there consensually. Among the highlights in the assortment of acts are a poetry/juggling combination which skewers some of the more artsy-fartsy acts in Cirque du Soleil; the Brothers/Cousins Kohlrabi; and a naughty little schoolyard interaction involving buttons and string.
The show is currently being put on in a warehouse-cum-office building at Sand Point, which unfortunately means a lack of ambiance and stagecraft. There's just not much you can do for sets in that kind of a space, especially when you need to hang a trapeze somewhere and have room for juggling. The fanciful costumes help make up for some of the lack of an appropriate setting, and I hope that someday, as the Contraptioneers would like, they are able to have a more permanent big-top style installation in a better location.
At times, the show seems just a bit too self-consciously hip, and the performers a bit too cynical, but the sheer talent displayed in the acts keeps things interesting. Though the idea of a circus may appeal, this isn't exactly the show you'd bring your kids to, though they will have a children's matinee on Sunday May 20th. The hootchi-coochie girls alone (who were all quite hooch-a-licious) are probably a bit too much for Junior, even though they don't take a stich off, and I can't quite imagine the show being the same without the adult innuendo. If you go, which I highly recommend, also bring something soft to sit on. The metal bleachers, while certainly appropriate for a circus, aren't any more fun to sit on for this show than they are for football games.
The show finishes its run this weekend. Reservations can be made by calling the Circus Contraption info line: 206-442-2004, or by going to their website: www.CircusContraption.com.
Circus lover's delight
Remember the rhyme, "Ring around the rosy; pocket full of posies; ashes, ashes..." -- the sweetly sung rhyme almost, but doesn't quite, hide the deadly seriousness of the words. Visually and aurally stimulating, "...all fall down" uses this idea with great success in a series of vignettes with childhood settings intrepreted in very grownup ways. A toy piano sounds evil, pigtailed girls strike erotic poses, and boy pirates adventure into the dark night in this grotesque, fantastic, absurd show.
Four musicians make a beautiful cacophony, stirring together the sounds of a motley array of instruments, including a toy piano, a beautifully played violin, a theremin and a slide whistle, and apply a David Lynchian sensibility to perfectly accompany the sights on stage.
And oh, the sights on stage. It's a circus lover's delight, complete with contortion, trapeze and juggling, all done with the grace of a traditional circus, but the aesthetic of a lasciviously-minded painter.