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Dead Man’s Carnival

10/12/09

Grace Hern DeWolff

"So what was your favorite part of the show?" Gypsy Geoff wants to know. By “show” he means the “modern day vaudevillian variety and circus gang," otherwise known as Dead Man’s Carnival. He’s juggling three yellow clubs and making steady eye contact with me, and when I hesitate he balances one club on his forehead before kicking it into the air, spinning around in place, and picking up the juggling where he left off. A traveling performer, circus arts teacher, and juggler, Gypsy Geoff acts as Dead Man’s Carnival’s master of ceremonies.

The company’s self-described “biggest show yet” took place at the Stonefly Brewery on August 9th. It’s vaudeville in a technical sense – a sequence of disparate acts, culminating in something like a headliner – but it's nothing like the performances you might have seen in the nineteenth century. There’s no animal acts, no “Who’s on first?”, no ventriloquism, no traditional song-and-dance, though there is singing and dancing, and you're not in a theater. Dead Man performs anywhere from bars to warehouses to sidewalks, traveling all over the country with a special emphasis on performing in small towns and out-of-the-way places.

photo by Lindsay Nack

Their material is a collection of variety acts, comic and provocative, dangerous and musical, spectacle and theater. It feels more like a party than a performance. For the August event they advertised two dollars off admission if you came dressed up. By the time the show began at 10pm, Stonefly was packed. There was barely standing room in front of the modest stage. The crowd was a mix of loud, drunk, and in costume. Some took advantage of the guy in a shiny turban advertising "fortunes for a dime."

Accompanied by red-painted Professor Pinkerton (“Pinky” to his friends, and “Satan” to others) and his band the Magnificents, there was stilt-walking, hat-juggling, storytelling, burlesque dancers, political theater, and an exploding toaster act. “I know you’ve all got a clown inside you,” said performer Eric Bang, and explained that in celebration of this “twelfth anniversary of his twenty-first birthday,” the audience would be invited to step outside onto the patio for the second half of the show and take part in breaking a world record: the number of pies thrown at Eric Bang. This may simply have been an excuse to get people to buy shaving cream pies, but Bang did wind up covered in cream and giggling furiously as he ran through the cheering crowd to go wash off in preparation for the rest of the show, including acting as the fulcrum for “the Ramp of Death.”
 
During the outdoor half of the show, which included the pies, we witnessed fire juggling, poi dancing, tricks with a flaming hula hoop, as well as the flame thrower that Gypsy Geoff and Bang constructed out of PVC and a bike pump. The flames were taller than the surrounding buildings. And, of course, the aforementioned “ramp,” a large piece of painted plywood that the Dead Man performers rode various wheeled vehicles over. Bang was underneath supporting it; they lit the ramp on fire.

photo by Lindsay Nack

The whole event lasted past midnight. The length of each act depended on the performers, the audience response, and the general enthusiasm for letting your freak flag fly. Performances vary depending not just on new acts developed by the performers, but by which performers are involved. Beyond Gypsy Geoff, Eric Bang, and Professor Pinkerton, Dead Man’s Carnival might include the Electric Lady (of exploding toaster fame), Zero the Clown, Arson Etiquette, Insurgent Theatre, or Lady Ambrosia.

There isn’t any through-line narrative, although there are stories within the acts. (Little Red Riding Hood for a specific example, though probably not the way you remember her.) There's no Brechtian analysis of the dismantlement of modern theatre, no deep philosophical understanding of underlying Jungian archetypes. Most of these performers didn't go to school for this stuff, they got thrown out of school for it.  And that's what makes this show special; the technical know-how and passion for entertainment these people put into a performance is what makes Dead Man's Carnival what it is. Every act took remarkable perseverance and/or practice to rehearse. The final product is pure spectacle. Flaming toasters, stilt walking, topless women... you don't go home discussing the themes and motifs and how they relate to modern conflicts, you talk about how high the flames were.


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