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23 June 2007

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Saw a strange little show at Club Hairspray last week: The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. These guys are on a tour, and have some sort of sponsorship relationship with Magic Hat brewery, but, thankfully, the Magic Hat people don’t seem too interested in censoring the show or even in keeping the quality up, which is actually refreshing. It was billed as part vaudeville, part burlesque, and honestly I don’t know enough about either term to know how closely that matched what they did, but at any rate it was pretty neat stuff.

The show started out with “Mr. Pennygaff” as a silent “hobo” clown, complete with funny nose, big shoes, and balloon animals. And his routine was very good, actually; a charming mix of innocence and innuendo. I kept thinking, “so this is why people go to clown college…cool.” From there, “Philomena,” (a fire-eater in a yellow tutu) took the stage as the MC, walking us through a variety of magic tricks, clown routines, sword swallowing, tightrope walking, and various gimmicks ranging from inspired to inane, all underscored by nifty live organ music by the talented Mr. Frederik Iversen.

For me, the straight up sideshow stuff was sort of cool, but not that enthralling. I mean, the sword swallowing (for example) was good, but not that theatrical, the only story or drama being “gee, this guy could really hurt himself.” It just didn’t hold my attention, generally speaking. The lame jokes and audience participation gimmicks (drink this beer without using your hands, etc.) worked in the context of the show, but the best stuff was all wordless. Neither of the co-MCs (Pennygaff dropped the clown duds in favor of a direct-audience-address huckster suit for Act II) quite had the flair to really tie the show together, and the sort of medicine-show aspects were only serviceably clever, but some of the silent, one-man routines backed by organ were totally spectacular.

This is, of course how the show got started, and although he seemed a little nervous and awkward as an MC, Mr. Pennygaff’s clown routine was an exciting opener, and a pleasant reminder that “clown” does not necessarily equal “boring” or “kid-stuff.” Luckily, I did not have to wait too long for more, courtesy of Joel Baker, who had less stage time over all, but made the most of even his occasional forays onstage to help clean up after an act. He really had both the shtick and the look down pat, in his black ballet slippers, wide-legged gray trousers, white suspenders, and ruffled dark pink shirt. He even powdered on just the right amount of white make up—not so much that he looked like a “Circus Clown,” but enough to draw out the anarchistic and delightful peculiarities of centuries–old camp; he achieved a silent film black-and-white look, only in color. Very neat. His silent wide eyed character was exiting and enthusiastic, always a step or two behind the audience, but never aware of it. He is also something of an acrobat, seeming to specialize in balancing upside-down (and/or sideways!) on a variety of chairs and even a lampshade. His best sequence (and possibly my favorite of the evening) was a simple, classic gag of a person being outsmarted by an inanimate object. In this case, Mr. Baker (accompanied by organ, don’t forget! Makes everything better!) drags over a lamp, sits in a chair next to it, and proceeds to open a book, clearly intending to read. He looks at the audience—perhaps he is going to read aloud to us? As soon as he actually looks at the open pages, of course, the light goes out. Surprised, he looks at the light, which comes back on. He settles in again, looks at the book, and the light goes out, but when he looks back at the light, it… well, ok, so it’s not exactly a surprising routine. But it doesn’t have to be . Baker is such an engaging performer, that his simple, if seemingly supernatural, struggle is riveting and strangely moving.

The other highlight of the show is A.J Silver, the smoldering olive-skinned hunk of the show. He is just as underused as Baker, but he makes such a impression in his two routines that he pretty much steals the show. The first sequence involves him in black leather and rhinestone cowboy getup doing rope tricks. And he’s incredible. He starts a lasso swinging, and never slows down. He swings it around, makes it bigger and smaller, jumps back and fourth though it, jumps up and down through it, I can’t even begin to tell you what all he does, it all happens so quickly and flashily. And he never stops looking at the audience and grinning like, “yeah, it’s cool, right?” With some performers, that could be annoying, but with him, it’s just fun. He ends the number with a delightful and surprisingly PG lower body striptease that finishes up with (attn: No Shamers) a hat trick that beats mine by a mile. Or, well, by 6 to 8 inches, anyway...

His second act, near the end of the evening, is a rhythm trick: he has on high heeled boots and starts two small, dense balls twirling rapidly on the end of long strings, one in each hand. He manages to swing them in circles at his sides so fast and so deftly that they create a reliable and wonderfully versatile pattern of loud clacking when he lets them brush the floor. He fills in around the clacking with the tapping of his boots, so that he is doing this graceful and wild stomping dance that is making more noise than should be possible, even with tap shoes (which he does not have). It’s a wonderfully exciting and unbelievable feat of deceptive simplicity and grace. Yeah, it’s just a side show trick, but it’s a loud, fast, and exciting side show trick! And he even manages syncopation! Woo-hoo!

One thing, though, is that the women got a bit shafted. Sure Philomena got to do fire tricks, but like sword swallowing, it’s got limited appeal, at least for me. And she’s a good MC, but maybe doesn’t find quite the right line between modern and vintage. As for Ariele, the last of the performers, she mainly serves as the cheery assistant in a leotard (which looks modernly out of place) except for a trip out to the courtyard to see her perform on a tightrope. And she’s excellent, doing a variety of jumps and stunts, and even managing an incredible split on the rope before the routine ends, but as talented as she is, it’s just not as showy as lasso tricks and loud noises, nor as theatrical as trying to read by an uncooperative light. Plus, she had to make do with canned music.

But it left me wondering if maybe the cannon of vaudeville performers is so skewed towards the men, that the women have trouble fitting in and building their own routines that do not rely as heavily on male stereotypes. I mean, when I think of great silent clowns, I think of men: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, right? Were vaudeville women exclusively either in need of rescue or bearded? I have no idea, honestly. I’ve never seen them, but from what I’ve heard, The Rebelles have certainly found a feminine way to take the stage in a vaudeville-esqe sort of way. So I’m not sure why the Bindlestiff Family seemed so male-centric, but it did. At least to me. Well, I guess it was because the guys got all the best material! Whether by choice, or by accident, I don’t know, and would be interested to find out.

All in all, though, I was very glad someone talked me into giving this show a try. It had charm, some wit, great music, and most of all, reminded me how simple and pure great comedy can be.

But next time, how about a little more of the quiet fellow and the dude in the cowboy hat, eh…?

--Willie Repoley