Todd Robbins' Carnival Knowledge
nytheatre.com review by Todd Carlstrom
August 12, 2006
Time is definitely not on the side of one of America's greatest entertainments, the ten-in-one sideshow. Nor is technology. For many rural Americans before World War II, their only glimpse of show business came when the touring carnivals came to town. Then came television, which beamed the amazing and astounding into our living rooms without all the mosquitoes, sawdust, and animal odors. In his show Carnival Knowledge, Todd Robbins is fighting an uphill battle trying to convince jaded, air-conditioned, urban audiences to feel nostalgic for a tradition that few (if any) of them have authentically experienced. It is a testament to the rarity of his gifts as a historian and practitioner of the disappearing arts of the midway that he wins that battle so effortlessly.
Returning to FringeNYC (where it debuted five years ago), Carnival Knowledge is a winning production even if judged only on its most superficial level: as an exhibition of astounding feats such as walking on broken glass, eating fire, and hammering nails into one's nostrils (yes, really). Sure, reality TV competitions feature people doing unusual things with/to their bodies, but nothing compares to watching someone from only a few feet away as they chew up a GE light bulb that you handled yourself just moments before. Robbins commands the stage even when simply talking about sideshow life. Between acts, he spins captivating personal and historical anecdotes with a salacious wit that never takes itself too seriously. In fact, he's almost funnier when his jokes bomb ("It's almost like comedy!").
Whether Robbins was named "The Post-Modern Master of the Sideshow" or assumed the title himself, he deserves it. He is frank in acknowledging that most of the seemingly miraculous talents in the carny repertoire really come down to practiced technique. To him (and, ultimately, us), those talents are more amazing for deriving from human ingenuity than they would be if they were superhuman, which is how they were advertised in the industry's heyday.
Robbins and director Kirsten Sanderson strike gold in appealing to the romance of that lost age. By hearkening to the glory days of the sideshow, they point up the uncertainty of its future. I left the theatre feeling lucky that I got to witness these acts firsthand while I still could. Granted, it's always been part of the carny mystique to exaggerate how few people are privy to its secret ways, but never before has reality agreed so readily. The last two remaining sideshows in the world (one co-run by Robbins) are barely holding on in the face of aggressive real estate development and the dwindling ranks of its practitioners. Still, though Carnival Knowledge resonates with a certain missionary zeal for the preservation of carnival culture, it stops well short of preaching. It is first and foremost a compelling evening of entertainment with a couple of tantalizing trade secrets thrown in for good measure.
Also in the show are Twistina and Zanitra (played by the same uncredited woman), who help with a couple of tricks, and the unbelievable Jennifer Miller (billed as Zanobia), the "Woman with a Beard" whose knife-juggling act nearly steals the show. Robbins loves to get the audience involved, so the stage-shy should consider themselves warned.
No stage or costume designer is credited, but someone deserves kudos for establishing the old-timey feel so well. Johnny Meah's beautiful stage banner art certainly helps. Lastly, it's rare that the program bears mentioning in a review, but this one boasts particularly attractive cover art (by Jon Roger of American Artists). It's also quite informative, with a history of the American sideshow and a glossary of carnival jargon that'll separate the rubes from the "with it."