Dancing With Ghosts
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
August 15, 2009
Harley Newman has been called the "Zen-master of the sideshow" and appeared on over 200 television programs, including The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and Ripley's Believe it or Not. He was rejected by the Guinness Book of World Records as "too dangerous to publish" and used to perform under the stage name "The Bizarrist." With two world records, one for the minimum number of nails in a bed of nails (four nine inch spikes), and one for the most weight applied to a person while lying on a bed of nails (over 1,700 pounds), Newman is considered a true—if sometimes weird—innovator of the art of escape and sideshow acts in general.
If you Google his name, you'll find him starring in a documentary called American Carny and a few YouTube videos featuring stuff like the "Sword Swallowers Day," risky escape artists' competitions, and other jaw-dropping moments like seeing Harley insert two giant deep-sea fishing lures into his lower eyelids and asking someone from the crowd to fill a cup dangling from his fishhook eyelid rig, causing his skin to droop down his face.
Luckily, in his solo-performance Dancing With Ghosts, he dispenses with some of the more grotesque freak-show acts and maintains only the sword-swallowing, an easy escape moment, and lying on that bed of four nails. Moreover, he embeds the carny gigs within a more spiritual undertaking that touches on the Mayan civilization, shrunken heads, shamanic visions, and other ethnographic material rooted in ancient rituals. Why? Because Newman has an uncle, a story-telling plant explorer, the adopted brother to the shaman in a tribe of head-hunters. So the carny artist decided it was high time to explore research libraries and anthropology museums in a multi-cultural soul-searching attempt to dig deeper into the history and geography of ritualistic self-mutilation and "freakiness."
The result is a show that would definitely benefit from working with a director, a dramaturg, and an acting coach. Even a non-narrative solo performance like this one, composed of short story-telling introductions, followed by Discovery Channel-esque videos interwoven with carny acts, needs a dramatic structure that makes an overall sense. As it is right now, the show only displays random spiritual thoughts and interesting images meant only to fill the space between the circus acts.