The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus
nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
February 26, 2005
From the Gutter to the Glitter: A Night Out With the Bindlestiffs is a testament to the astonishing things human beings can achieve when they have far too much time on their hands. At one point in this modest but delightful tribute to carnival sideshows and circus acts, one of the performers, garish Mr. Pennygaff (aka Keith Nelson), gleefully boasts that his $100,000 liberal arts education prepared him for a career of standing on stage and swallowing swords. Fortunately, he’s very good at it. In this show, he also swallows fire, spins tops, juggles, lassoes, plays the sousaphone, and pops balloons while his stage partner, Philomena Bindlestiff, is wearing them (and not much else). Philomena, whose alter ego is Stephanie Monseu, also juggles, walks barefoot on glass, swallows fire, and does a high wire trapeze act—well, as high as the stage allows. But, trust me, it’s impressive, as is her talent with a bullwhip. Her audience volunteer sustained no injuries.
Nelson and Monseu are a couple both onstage and off, and created and wrote From the Gutter to the Glitter with Peter Bufano, who also multi-tasks musically. Bufano wrote the cheerfully kitschy score and plays the piano and accordion. He is aided and abetted by Kethe Hostetter who plays a mean fiddle, as she proves when she gets her own moment in the spotlight. Bufano juggles as well and joins his co-creators on stage for a bout of triple pin trading. The show is a new production from Brooklyn-based Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and is playing along with a revival of The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Cabaret at Theatre for the New City.
There is no real plot or story to follow, it’s just a variety show homage to seedy American pop entertainment of the past couple of centuries with an extra dollop of S&M thrown in for good measure. And, I suspect, it’s an excuse for Nelson and Monseu to show off all the cool and very weird stuff they can do while being as naughty about it as possible. Watching them salaciously feed fire down each other’s throat is not for the weak or inhibited. A woman who sat next to me was very creeped out by Nelson’s sword swallowing, and I wasn’t sure she’d be back after intermission. (She was.) I felt the urge to look away myself a couple of times, especially when Menseu did some target whip-crack practice on a male volunteer who was manipulated into a very tenuous physical position. I don’t think he was an audience plant because after the stunt was over, he returned to his seat looking very shaken.
Other audience volunteers had a happier, if not easier time of it in the beer-guzzling contest. The object of the game is to drink an entire bottle of Budweiser, holding onto the bottle only by the lips AND not let any of it spill or dribble out while drinking. A man and two women participated. The man lost early on, and the winner was a woman who had apparently had a lot of practice (earlier that very evening, in fact, based on her enthusiasm). She won a free Budweiser.
It’s not all blatant tackiness and death-defying feats, however. In his medicine show barker role, Nelson/Mr. Pennygaff manages to stay amazing while giving a brief lecture on the history of spinning tops as circus entertainment. My favorite was Philomena’s quasi-trapeze act, which had nothing lewd about it. Menseu’s much-tattooed body is incredibly limber, and it’s very compelling to watch her muscles work to the max as she performs impossible stunts and contortions.
It’s certainly a fun and different sort of evening. According to the program, From the Gutter to the Glitter: A Night Out With the Bindlestiffs is an evolving show and subject to change. But whatever they come up with next I am confident that I will be glad it’s the Bindlestiffs doing it and not me.