Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

A bottle-blowing performance, one of many musical interludes at the “Grand American Traveling Dime Museum”

Circus Contraption is one well-oiled extravaganza

By David H. Katz

These are trying times that demand high-quality entertainment, entertainment that takes you way, way out of your head. And it doesn’t get any more entertaining, or high quality, or way more out of your head, than Circus Contraption, the surreal, sexy, Seattle-based one-ring alternative circus troupe who have brought their exuberant and wildly delightful hurdy-gurdy of a show, the “Grand American Traveling Dime Museum,” to the Theater for The New City on First Ave. for the month of September.

Rightly billed as “a bracing curative for the afflictions of our times,” this zany, 14-person multitalented troupe writes and performs all their own music (as the Circus Contraption band), designs and builds their own amazingly detailed and artistic sets, costumes, puppets and props, and deploys a dazzling array of the circus and theater arts: acrobatics, aerial rope and fabric dancing, trapeze, trick cycling, stilt walking, juggling, ballet, gymnastics, mime, puppetry and mask making, to name but a few, all in the cause of a raucous two hours of depraved happiness and slightly risqué family fun.

Structured as part sideshow, part early 1900s curiosity shop the “Traveling Dime Museum” is at once dark, macabre and bizarre; and yet tartly charming, almost sweet, combining a delirious Tim Burtonesque visual edge with a breezy old-timey vaudeville style. At Theater for The New City’s small, intimate performance space, the audience is right on top of the action.

David Crellin, as the mellifluous, somewhat bombastic barker and ringmaster Armitage Shanks (a nom de guerre familiar to aficionados of certain British plumbing fixtures), sets the tone with his ironic, archly comic, mustache-twirling, upraised-eyebrow patter, energetically segueing into a succession of exhibitions and skits involving crooning fetuses, a rope-climbing fortuneteller (Lara Paxton), a creepy, zombified gymnast (Evelyn Bittner a.k.a. Acrophelia the Necrobatte, along with Jason Williams, as the strange curator of curiosities, Dr. Calamari), a loose-limbed, bone-juggling caveman (Contraption Man Colin Ernst), a fast-talking, wise guy bunny-man (drummer, comedian and acrobat par excellence Matt Manges) staging an around-the-world velocipede race, a drunkard (Williams again, an amazing mime) being plagued by persistently pesky devils, a pair of quarreling yet libidinous satyrs (Manges and sexy rope dancer and trapeze artist Lara Paxton, a.k.a. the exotic and mysterious Darty Kangoo), and plenty more.

All of these are interspersed with rousing original musical interludes from the Circus Contraption band, a swinging ensemble, bathed in Toulouse Lautrec lighting, consisting in various configurations of accordion, banjo, clarinets, saxophones, violin, trumpet, trombone, tuba, flute, piccolo, washboard, guitar, upright bass, ukulele, glockenspiel, tambourine and driving enthusiasm. They perform a kind of freaky klezmer/cabaret/hot jazz hybrid with a dash of Nino Rota thrown in.

There are the tap-dancing, vocalizing Hoochie Coochie Girls: Paxton, tap dancing on her head, the graceful and lovely hula hoop stylist, skater and incredible aerialist Kari Podgorski (a.k.a. Sally Pepper); hat trickster, tap dancer and stilt walker Jenny (Nova Jo Yaco) Iacobucci and Sai Breznau as opera diva Pinky D’Ambrosia.

Founded in 1998 by Crellin, former frontman of the band Phineas Gage, and performer and artistic director Paxton, the group grew into a nonprofit collective that became a sensation at alternative performance venues along the Left Coast. The troupe truly embodies a do-it-yourself, dare we say, almost socialistic spirit; aside from each being a skilled and consummate performer at their particular exotic specialty or musical instrument, each member also doubles, triples and quadruples as welders, carpenters, painters, costume designers, graphic artists, grant writers, publicity and merchandizing directors as well as the dozen or so other functions necessary to keep a theatrical enterprise running.

Unless held over, Circus Contraption will be at Theater for The New City until Oct. 1.

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