Academic journal article TheatreForum

"THAT NOT OK FEELING": Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum

Academic journal article TheatreForum

"THAT NOT OK FEELING": Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum

Article excerpt

At Theater for the New City in the East Village on a sultry August night, a packed house is restless and talkative. The space is raw, ironically at once cavernous and intimate. [Photo 2] Mysteriously hectic rigging is exposed to view, the cement floor is painted with a distorted Alice in Wonderland chessboard effect, and the multilayered set is crammed full of inexplicable objects lit only dimly by hanging lanterns. The spectators sit in bleachers and on the floor in single chairs facing the acting area, with no barrier or gulf of any kind to separate them from the action. A drop made from a parachute masks the entire upstage right section. A rickety-looking ironmongery balcony stretches over an entrance upstage center, continuing to a bally platform and ticket booth, with stairs leading down to stage left. The walls of the set above and below the balcony are chock-full of Edwardiana-bizarro: pinned gigantic beetles and butterflies, clustered small daguerreotypes of weird persons and scenes. Also mounted on the wall is an intermittently glowing box labeled, ominously, "RADIUM-The Healing Rays." There is a free standing old-fashioned mechanical fortuneteller upstage left, and against the upstage wall is mounted a huge, gaudy, boardwalk-style "Love Tester," with an enormous pair of lips and a ladder of potential ratings running from "Cold Fish" to "Hot Stuff."

It all looks as though it was once rich and glorious, but is now faded, dusty, and tattered, as if recently salvaged from the attic of some long dead ringmaster. The whole effect is one of educated clutter, evoking vaguely remembered images of the once ubiquitous traveling dime museums of past centuries. But the stage is also Brechtian in its juxtapositions (for instance, there is a bookshelf filled with old tomes and half empty booze bottles) and in its refusal to conceal the flies. In fact, the fly system of the theatre, with a mystifying array of odd looking rigging and devices, is not only visible to the audience, but rather cunningly lit.

As the lights dim, our eyes are drawn down center to a covered upright display case. The cover is abruptly withdrawn by an unseen hand to reveal three toy monkey musicians behind glass. These are puppets: they begin to play a jerky, haunting air that sounds like an old Model T with a bad crankshaft. A demented-looking ringmaster wearing a bowler hat, waistcoat and braces emerges from behind the audience, identifies himself as Armitage P. Shanks (played by David Crellin) and sings:

Welcome to our wicked little fascinations

Right on time to join us for the ride

We've devised an antiquated machination

Oddities await so won't you kindly step inside?

We're inclined towards sybaritic exultation;

You might find you'll have us for the night.

Fall in line, we'll administer inoculations

Turn the nickelodeon and kiss your ass goodbye.

(unpub. playscript)

Shanks moves through the audience, his language laden with sexuality and barely contained malice. At one point, he jerks a female audience member's face into his crotch; against all expectations, she giggles. Seconds later, as Shanks introduces the "Circus Contraption Orchestra and Drinking Society," the parachute drop is yanked away by unseen wires to reveal a bandstand loaded with strange musical instruments, low-budget sound-effects tools like slide whistles and mooing boxes, and a variety of costumes and toys. On this bandstand is a collection of musicians wearing motley costumes of mismatched and threadbare antique formal wear, as if they had just come from a violent raid of a thrift store. The stage explodes in music, light, and insane laughter; the orchestra's sound is a unique miscegenation of Tom Waits and an old-world klezmer group on LSD. In their strategically smudged Pierrot-cum-danse-macabre makeup, accordionist Harold Smaude (Greg Adair), bassist Dexter Mantooth (Joseph Vito Albanese), clarinetist Chameleo (Kevin Hinshaw), and particularly tuba player Shmootzi the Clod (Drew Keriakedes), appear to be escaped asylum inmates off their meds. …

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