Grand American Traveling Dime Museum
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
September 1, 2005
It would take a lot of work to not enjoy Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum, currently playing at Theatre For the New City. You could close your eyes, and avoid the dangerously impressive feats of aerial dynamism. You could plug up your ears, not taking in the tubas or banjos, or the satisfyingly gruff and tinny croons of its singers. You could crawl under your seat, cover yourself with a jacket and hum the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" until the show was over. Short of that, there isn't much chance of avoiding the contagious enjoyment to be had here. It's probably better just to give into the good time, since chances to see shows this fun come along rarely at best.
The aesthetic of the show is a bit of a dingy, Victorian era, traveling circus act—fully equipped with the sideshow's floating fetuses in jars and a trio of buxom beauties, known as the hoochie coochie girls, performing tricks in their underwear. The characters also include: Dr. Calamari, a keeper of curios (and a comatose woman he keeps in a case); Bunny LaMonte, a rabbit-eared bicycle racer; and Darty Kangoo, a scantily clad fortune teller who doubles as a trapeze artist—to name only a few. Circus Contraption calls the show "a bracing curative for the afflictions of our times." And if the afflictions of our times include taking ourselves too seriously, steadily removing mysteries from our lives, and altogether taking the fun out of things—then the Dime Museum is a steady curative indeed—and easier to swallow than snake oil.
The performers are shockingly talented and versatile. There's juggling, acrobatic feats high and low, songs, puppets—all elements of a seamlessly executed spectacle, one "designed to stimulate all aspects of the Human Organism," as the Circus Contraption barker says. And, unlike the bigger big tops of Cirque du Soliel or Barnum and Bailey, the intimacy and believability of the Dime Museum is what makes it so special. The gymnasts here don't look like someone cut from the Ukrainian Olympic team at the last minute—they look a bit more like that friend of a friend of yours, the one with the piercing, who borrowed 15 bucks a few weeks back. The rag-tag team of performers all seem a bit degenerate, and that's no small part of their appeal.
The music is as much reason as any to see this show—it is almost all original, and is performed live by the highly talented Circus Contraption Orchestra. Their lyrics and arrangements are as quirky as they are endearing.
Something should also be said about the set, designed by Terry Podgorski and Elizabeth Luce, which looks like a carousel as imagined by Tim Burton, dripping with torn fabrics and flashing bulbs. It is dark and tattered, capturing nuances in color and form, bringing rushing memories to mind for anyone who's ever been to the bruised and decrepit carnivals that creep from small town to small town.
Though they tip their top hats to the legacy of the circus and the sideshow, Circus Contraption manages a work that goes beyond homage.Their unique humor and talent make them an essential addition to the theatre and carnival tradition. And—an added bonus—Wednesdays are "pay what you will," making the possible excuses for not seeing this show next to nil. So go, watch a girl tap dance in a handstand, in this, Circus Contraption's New York debut.