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Stephanie Monseu speaks ardently about performing, as well she should–she’s a fire-eater. Three years ago in New York, Monseu and Keith Nelson started the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a collective dedicated to resurrecting the traveling sideshow. The pair initially regaled nightclub audiences with a fire-breathing act and soon attracted like-minded performers; gradually their concept evolved from staging a freakish medicine show to forming a bona fide circus with an amusing punk aesthetic.

Philomena, as Monseu is known onstage, emcees a show featuring such lost arts as the “yogi thread feat,” in which a fakir swallows a piece of string and then appears to work it out through the skin of his belly. When asked to explain what special talent she brings to the mix, Monseu offers a shrug, then confesses, “Whip cracking, I guess.”

Is she the top-hatted ringleader who keeps her performers in line with stern words and swift justice?

“No, actual whip cracking. I break pieces of spaghetti with a bullwhip. I’ve cracked a cigar out of Keith’s ass with my bullwhip. I’ll do a kind of syncopated percussion thing with two bullwhips. But I also do a lot of other stuff.”

Indeed. Her resume boasts a laundry list of obscure and dexterous gifts: lying on a bed of nails, walking on glass, blockheading…


“It’s when you pound a nail into your sinus cavity. I’m able to get a standard Phillips-head screwdriver up in there, and a thirty-penny nail.

“People are hungry for good live entertainment,” she insists. “It’s something that’s missing from our culture because we were raised on computers and TV. They’re sick and tired of seeing bands just get onstage and play their instruments and be sullen and boring. I think the variety show, with sideshows and vaudeville, is making a comeback.”

The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus will appear at Charybdis Gallery, 1750 N. Wolcott, on Sunday, August 3. Doors open at 9 PM, show time is 10 PM. Admission is $8; call 773-486-4816

–Chauncey Hollingsworth

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Robert Butcher.