The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and Autonomadic Bookmobile

at Charybdis, August 3

By Jack Helbig

As circuses have become more popular again–thanks to Cirque du Soleil, the Big Apple Circus, and a handful of smaller troupes–sideshows have also begun attracting more notice. But sideshows–with their tattooed ladies, people with flipperlike hands, “leopard” skin, excessive facial hair–have always appealed to more prurient interests.

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and Autonomadic Bookmobile, which performed for one night only in a local art gallery, calls itself a circus, and many of its acts–an aerialist, a clown–are strictly circus. Yet this New York City troupe has adopted a grungy sideshow aesthetic that gives its show a dangerous edginess.

Many of its acts clearly belong in a sideshow. A woman eats handfuls of live crickets. Mr. Pennygaff pounds nails into his nasal cavity. The show’s emcee, Philomena, is more dominatrix than ringmaster. She enters in fetishistic clothing–tight, spangled hot pants, high boots, a tuxedo jacket buttoned low enough to reveal she’s wearing nothing underneath–cracking a whip and bossing the audience around. These acts constitute the show’s allure, and the Bindlestiff folks know it. Sideshows are ritualized nonconformity. They allow people to feel like they’re participating in something dangerous, wicked, and subversive–without actually threatening the established order.

The posters that greeted us as we walked into the gallery announced the acts as if they were exhibits in a freak show. And again and again Philomena and company showed us their outsider credentials. Philomena made allusions to her history of drug use. The six-foot clown, Scotty the Blue Bunny, kept referring us to the table of literature, the Autonomadic Bookmobile Literary Menagerie, on display before and after the show. There was even a whole act, by a woman who calls herself Dr. Ducky Doolittle, devoted to anal stimulation and the many crazy things people have stuck inside themselves to get off. But the more they protested that they were outsiders, the less believable they became. When Philomena removed her jacket to reveal arms covered in beautiful, swirling tattoos, the moment created barely a ripple–there were women in the audience who had more tattoos.

Another problem was that the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus was competing with its own sideshow, which made the main show look tame and safe. An hour before show time tables had been set up along the gallery walls displaying wares and offering services. At one table was a professional body piercer and tattoo artist who was ready to put a stud in your tongue or inscribe any of dozens of designs on your body. One woman took him up on his offer, and the sight of her sitting on a tall stool, the top of her shorts peeled down, while the artist kept pressing the pen, buzzing like a pissed-off wasp, into her hip, was more disturbing than anything the Bindlestiffs could serve up.

At another table was a display of pornographic videos with titles such as Bad Boyz in Bondage, Stunts With Cunts, and Historic Erotica: Superstar Strippers of Yesteryear, and selections from the videos played on a TV. In one a woman burst balloons by shooting darts from a blowgun in her vagina and later blew a toy horn placed in the same orifice. Nothing in the Bindlestiff show topped this act either.

Even the troupe’s radical bookstore, which specialized in books fostering punkish transgression and extremism in defense of freedom–Electronic Civil Disobedience, Vulvamorphia, and Hannibal Lecter, My Father–was upstaged by local underground comic-book artist King Vel Veeda, who stood by a display of his erotic comic books and prints, a colorful executioner’s mask and dark glasses obscuring his face, a cheesy plastic crown on his head. Hanging on the wall behind him was a cartoonish nude drawing of Chicago’s most overexposed sex star, Seka, her eyes empty and blue, her areolae covered with two absurdly large stars. This one drawing, which pimped her porn-queen beauty even as it mocked it, was a more interesting exploration of conflicting attitudes about sexuality than any of the Cirkus’s mild sex stunts, including Dr. Ducky Doolittle’s lap dance performed on a birthday cake.

The only act in the show that matched the seemingly transgressive spirit of the preshow was the cruel, viciously satiric piece that ended the evening–in which Philomena literally sewed three circus pom-poms to Mr. Pennygaff’s chest and stomach, then drew blood from his left arm and used it to paint his nose a cheerful red and give him rouged cheeks. He then took the vial of blood and made up her face. But such gross-out entertainment only takes you so far, and after the initial shock wears off you’re left with what’s essentially a sloppily performed mime act.

Frankly, the Bindlestiff folks would have been much better off if they’d thrown away their sideshow attitude and just given us a low-budget circus. Una, a virtuoso trapeze artist, held us spellbound for five minutes of aerial acrobatics, and Scotty the Blue Bunny won us over from the moment he performed his first bit of clown shtick and kept our attention through the show, as he turned from clown to juggler to fire-eater. These two had so much commitment and devotion to pure entertainment they made everyone else look second-rate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by David V. Kamba.