I wanted to see how these performers’ minds were set so I interviewed them singly and in pairs. I talked first to Madame Mandible — buxom, ebullient, mid-30s, not one to mince words.
She’d dropped out of college after a visit to a jazz festival in New Orleans, where she’d stayed for several years. After reluctantly auditioning for (she didn’t think herself a performer) and getting the part of Vita Sackville-West in a play about Virginia Woolf, she was hooked, a goner. This play took her all over the world. She later finished school, moved to Chicago, and started a circus called the Tingle-Tangle Menagerie, which lasted, on a shoestring, about two years.
She had some friends who lived in an apartment so big they called it “Texas” (it had been a gym), and she began to build her “peep show” in what she called “the wonder box.” As she described it, and from a few pictures I saw, it would most likely be called an installation piece, or maybe a sculpture, or maybe a performance piece, or maybe all of the above.
Younger/newer artists seem to be doing many things, i.e., they’re savvy about, and adept at, many skills. In Zirk Ubu there must be at least a dozen art forms operating, and most of the performers are good at two or three or more.
I was once accused of being monocultural. After asking what that meant, I was told that I like and care about only one art form: writing, and especially poetry. Not true. I like painting, I like music, I like theater; it’s just that I prefer to read and try to write. I also felt that my life as a poet made me just odd enough, maybe, to apprehend the motives and passions of this troupe.
As best I understand it, the peep-show piece consisted of a large box with three peepholes. You’d look through one and you’d see an older woman at her vanity taking off her makeup. She was in her late 60s, “looked much older and acted much younger!” Through another peephole: a younger woman wearing ill-fitting vintage lingerie. She proudly poses in her mirror with a bowling ball. Through the final peephole, in what Madame Mandible called her “menstruation piece,” one saw another woman. By using cotton balls, corn syrup, and food coloring, the woman could squeeze her legs in such a way that she would seem to be menstruating. I was assured that this was done with more subtlety than it might seem. All metaphor, the exegesis of which most readers of goodwill can read: a feminist point, nonstrident, Dada-whimsical, multimedia, funny/serious.
The following day I talked to Dame Bedlam and the Red Sultan. The Red Sultan is of average height, is slim, and sports dreads that would make some Rasta folks envious. Several of the dreads are dyed purple. Dame Bedlam has long, wild auburn hair, which she sometimes wears up, sometimes down, and sometimes in between. I noticed a few days later, at the show, she had a tattoo between her shoulder blades: five words stacked on top of each other.
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
It’s a two-dimensional palindrome. Its origins are obscure, probably pagan. The oldest attestation to this charm shows up in a graffito in the city of Pompeii, destroyed in 79 A.D. The Pennsylvania Dutch used it as a charm to protect their cattle from the evil eye. That’s very important: to keep the evil eye off your cattle, especially your milch cows! Translated, it means, roughly, “The sower, Arepo, holds the wheel carefully.”
Dame Bedlam and the Red Sultan both earned doctorates from the University of Michigan, and both have published scholarly books in their fields. They came to the alternative circus world at first simply because they were looking for something different to do. They started hanging around Technomania, going to shows, helping out, and eventually getting onstage, the pleasure of which boils down to “enjoying watching people have fun doing something that’s not polished but passionate and nutty, something not perfect, something not slick.” (I’m conflating things said by both the Red Sultan and Dame Bedlam.) Since they don’t have traditional circus skills — they don’t juggle or stilt walk or eat fire — they create skits. As one of them put it, “Turning ideas into costumes, which leads to skits.” Or, “Thinking through costumes.” The costume comes first, and then they invent the character: the costume tells them who should wear it. Their bits are for entertainment, but they also “act as some sort of exploration on our parts.” That’s Mr. (Robert) Frost’s equivalent of “No discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader.”
I asked them if they’d quit their day jobs to do circus full-time. They both said no but added simultaneously, “We’d take a sabbatical!” and when I asked if they got nervous before a show, the Red Sultan said: “We’re teachers, we perform all the time. I have one class with 300 people in it. I’m basically a stand-up comedian with ideas as my punch lines.” In over 35 years in academia myself (though I snuck in the back door without a Ph.D.), I’ve learned that if sometimes there’s laughter in a classroom, there’s more learning going on in that classroom.
The Red Sultan had been playing a character for a while called the Bad Poet. While Dame Bedlam, his beloved, dances interpretively behind him, the Bad Poet declaims poetry, poems of “my feelings meant for you” and “feelings I’m afraid to show.” He described it as the kind of angst-ridden poetry a lovesick 16-year-old might write. When the Bad Poet arrives onstage, almost immediately comes some “booing, heckling, a little bit of throwing.” He told me this disturbed him so he decided to commit suicide, seppuku, by sword, onstage. He later showed me the sword that disappeared into itself when pressed against his belly. He’d been having trouble with this bit: “The problem was that the vituperation began as soon as the character appeared onstage; there was an immediate reaction to the character himself, rather than to his words…the poet elected to kill himself because there seemed to be little point to the act if, from the beginning, the audience expressed hatred, and the poet’s words only served to confirm that hate. Art should not confirm people in their basest emotions; it should enkindle those emotions in such a way that people recognize them and meditate on them. As soon as the cognitive dimension of the act was lost, the poet had to die.” The Red Sultan (whose heart is good) is an articulate man. Then the Red Sultan asked me if I’d like to play that part in their next show. Shameless, dumb as a bag of ball-peen hammers, I said, “Sure.”