Before visiting San Diego’s Zirk Ubu, the last time I’d gone to the circus, I’d walked out with 50 pounds of elephant dung in a cardboard box on my shoulder. I had read that elephant dung was good for gardens, I was a beginning gardener, and I had elephant-dung connections: a former student of mine was a clown in a major traditional circus. Her parents had just spent well over a hundred grand to send her to a fine liberal arts college, and she wanted to continue her education by going to clown college!
I like to think it was my letter of recommendation that got her in. All clowns need a specialty gag. Hers was contortionism: she emerged from a box about the size of a three-slice toaster. She got herself in trouble almost immediately with the circus authorities because she complained that a particular animal trainer (one of the headliners) was cruel to his animals. Clowns are low on the totem pole in the traditional circus. She was a vegan, clown, and animal-rights activist. She worked for the circus for several years and married the boss clown. They have a few kids now, and both still do clowning work. Every year she sends me a Christmas card with the whole family dressed up in full clown attire.
The circus and circus life as I’d known it — mostly from movies and books — had never engaged my imagination and didn’t impress my daughter much either. When she was three, we took her to the big top. My former student and several of her clown pals even came up into the audience before the show to give my daughter special attention. Yawn. The elefunks? Ho-hum. When we asked her afterwards what were her favorite parts, she said, “The goldfish.” Meaning the little goldfish crackers we had brought along as a snack.
Zirk Ubu, one of San Diego’s alternative circus troupes, includes no elephants, but its members perform several traditional circus-associated acts — juggling, stilt walking, blockhead work (i.e., pounding a spike into one’s nostril with a hammer), aerialism, clowning, puppetry — and a whole lot of new nuttiness, new ideas about what circus can be and what role it can play in our culture.
Let me introduce the troupe to you briefly, by both their real and their stage names.
Justine (she said she’d prefer I not use her last name, although it is on Zirk Ubu’s webpage), 21, is the youngest member of the troupe, is in several scenes, runs the concessions (popcorn and cotton candy), and is a self-described “expert on goggles.” Her stage name was Xylitol Sweetbread (she later changed it to Arlinka Galore). I looked up “xylitol”: it’s a naturally occurring sugar, used as a sucrose substitute for diabetics. And as we all know, sweetbread is the edible thymus or pancreas of an animal. She’s the stage assistant of Murrugun the Mystic, another troupe member whom I’ll introduce soon. They are in a romantic relationship. They share the rent by busking: street performing. Her regular day job: she makes and remanufactures clothing.
The costuming, in general, particularly among the female members of the troupe, is eyeball-rattling: Dadaist sexy, 18th-century French court influenced, colors lashed with colors, Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke influenced, Cubist at a slant — not your usual circus tights and bangles. Madame Mandible told me they all make their own costumes, “even the men.”
Nancy Caciola, Dame Bedlam, is a professor of medieval studies at UCSD. She’s a conceptual artist who creates acts and characters based on, among other things, early madhouses (bedlam) and medieval anatomical drawings. She’s been partners for 27 years — most of them married — with another troupe member, Richard Cohen. Together, they’re responsible for my joining the circus, for about 15 seconds.
Jim Call/Sheik Maracas is the oldest member of the troupe at 61. The music, very important for this show, is his department. He was in a San Diego punk band in the late ’70s and early ’80s called the Penetrators. He specializes in what he calls “noise music,” which sounded about 75 percent music and 25 percent noise. It, and the way he mixed other music with it, struck me as just right for Zirk Ubu. Sheik Maracas limits his costume to a fez. He spends most of the night in the sound booth. His day (night) job: DJ at a strip club.
Richard Cohen/the Red Sultan is also a professor at UCSD — of religious studies, primarily Buddhism and Hinduism. “A Jewish kid from Long Island,” he grew up about five minutes from his wife, Dame Bedlam, although they didn’t meet each other until they were freshmen at Wesleyan University. They’re in their mid-40s. He specializes in concept and development and being a “mystery buffoon.” A combination of talents that one doesn’t, but should, see more often! The Red Sultan creates characters like a magic house that falls in love with a chicken.
Allorah Creevay, aka Miss Tickle, is a stage and TV actor, comedienne, and a seasoned improv performer. She calls herself a “dinner bell for a feast of the absurd.” Day job: psychic, often channeling a 16th-century Native American chief named Great White Eagle. Lakota. He speaks in English, “but with an accent.” She also does a little “dog whispering.” I asked her what she liked about being in Zirk Ubu. She said, “Our art bumps up against their insides.” I’m sure she meant the insides of the audience, but the troupe members bounce off the insides of each other, sometimes butt heads, but mostly work with a kind of fluidity, even liquidity: individually, they’re individuals. Together, they’re a river!
Megan Fontaine/Miss Mango, dancer, aerialist, acrobat, stilter, costume designer. Day job: busker/circus artist.
Derrick Gilday/Dango, juggler, stilt balancer, acrobat, catcher and lifter of Mango. Day job: circus artist/busker; with Mango, as Mango and Dango. In a deep relationship with each other, on- and offstage.
Iain Gunn, aka Asbestos the Clown: puppetry, peace officer, 38 years old. If anyone is anything close to being a leader of this organized anarchist posse, it’s Iain, if only because of his expertise in a wide range of circus arts. A master puppeteer, he earns his living that way, mostly working with children. He’s involved with Bridget Rountree whom, alphabetically, we’ll meet soon.
Noticing any patterns here? Six of the eight people I’ve introduced to you so far are in relationships with others in Zirk Ubu, and there’s another couple to come. It’s a normal thing: we often meet those we love at work — because we spend a great deal of time there. Or it could be that people who share special and, in this case, rather odd and rarefied proclivities tend to find each other. Or could it be a riddle inside a peanut underneath a slice of cheese?
Mary-Margaret Mitchell/Madame Mandible is engaged to a chef who is not a member of Zirk Ubu. She studied painting at the University of Illinois and now works in internal design, specializing in custom murals for children’s bedrooms and commercial spaces. She’s a performance/concept artist, does props and sets, and “wears everything from a tutu to a tool belt.”
Scott Nelson/Murrugun the Mystic: sideshow, sword-swallowing, fire-eating, and fire-breathing, etc. Fire-eating and fire-breathing are two different arts, and here’s one tip re both: like peeing, don’t do it into the wind. Murrugun, as mentioned, is affiliated romantically with Xylitol Sweetbread.
Bridget Rountree/Mademoiselle Mechanique is a dancer and aerialist. She specializes in turning “thoughts into form,” which I think nicely sums up what Zirk Ubu essentially does: turns strange and original thoughts into strange and original forms. From the abstract to the concrete, the concrete being inexhaustible and holding great possibilities of discovery. That’s just about every artist’s responsibility. She said something about Zirk Ubu’s “organized chaos,” a good oxymoron. (My all-time favorite oxymoron? “My heart, that velvet wrecking ball” — the poet Bill Knott.) Mademoiselle Mechanique’s day job: she’s a puppeteer and keeps the books for her and Asbestos the Clown’s production company, Animal Cracker Conspiracy.
Tom Wall/Psych is an aerialist. He’s a psychologist by day, specializing and certified in family and couples’ counseling, which, he jokingly told me, comes in handy working in a troupe of 12 that includes 4 couples. He also said he’s the only member of the troupe who isn’t currently in a relationship.
On a cloudy mid-September day I went to my first Zirk Ubu rehearsal/meeting. It was at Asbestos, Mademoiselle Mechanique, and Psych’s house in University Heights. I had a déjà vu moment when I first entered: it reminded me of a hippie pad in the late ’60s, early ’70s, sans the smell of cannabis. Also, no sitar music. The place was a bit disheveled but clean. These people had things other than Better Homes and Gardens on their minds.
The backyard is their main rehearsal space because this is where the prop shed (actually a canvas garage) is and, more importantly, a rig: two metal poles firmly anchored in the ground and attached by a crossbar. This for aerial work and from which they hang their silks (pairs of long, narrow pieces of fabric they climb and perform on) and a large hoop, also hung from silks. They practice their aerial work here, but not today. Mademoiselle Mechanique was feeling a little congested and said she didn’t think hanging upside down would be a good idea. They also have a small stage on the lawn. A small garden, flourishing — Mademoiselle Mechanique’s got the green thumb.
Murrugun was standing on an anthill, complaining about the ants crawling on him. This from a guy who at one time ate maggots (out of a Chinese take-out carton) as part of his act! He couldn’t move: this was his “spot.” Some of the others mocked him but threw a tarp over the anthill.
The first thing I noticed in the prop shed was a pair of old classic clown shoes. They’d been painted red but were so worn the original black beneath showed through in patches. They felt soft and looked comfy, despite their exaggerated size. These shoes were made for clowning!
This wouldn’t pass for an ordinary rehearsal — there was no director (though it turned out that Mademoiselle Mechanique was directing the next show). They practiced their opening scene, in which they turned themselves (the whole troupe) into a shifting human sculpture. In the show they’d wear full-body white painter’s suits and white masks. Now, only a few of them wore masks. They had an informal meeting, brainstorming, talking business matters, ideas for the upcoming show. Nothing seemed to be decided on. It seemed chaotic, but I learned this was really about confidence — by showtime they always pulled it together. And they didn’t give a damn about being perfect. Mango told me later, referring to her and Dango’s busker gigs, “If we mess up, we can pretend it was on purpose.” They don’t mess up much, and when they do, nobody dies.
Alternative circuses are not brand-new, of course. Zirk Ubu is an offshoot of another San Diego troupe called Technomania, led by Bruce Cartier, an acknowledged innovator in the field. Each member of Zirk Ubu credited him or praised him in one way or another.
The day I returned to my home in Atlanta, I read an article in the New York Times about alt circus going on in New York, often in warehouses in Brooklyn. Most alt circuses include aerial (though not often traditional trapeze) acts and need a place with high ceilings from which to anchor and hang their silks.
Some other groups around the country are Mystic Family Circus, Yard Dogs Road Show, New Pickle Circus, Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.
There’s something tribal about circus. Hundreds of years ago the wandering gypsies of Europe probably did the first circuslike performances. Not until the late 18th Century did an Englishman named Philip Astley combine equestrian drills with acrobatics and thus start the first traditional circus. Zirk Ubu does not have horses. A fan of Circus Contraption, a Seattle-based group, put it this way: “Circus is about play — the rediscovery and affirmation of play, much more than it is about skill. Cirque du Soleil is about skill, to a level where it almost doesn’t seem human. But when Circus Contraption performs, you can almost see yourself up there.” I didn’t believe that. When I read it.
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.”
That night I went to Seaport Village to see Murrugun and Xylitol do their busking act, but when I arrived they had just finished up and had a pretty good night: about $240, including a $50 bill. Murrugun’s namesake was a son of Shiva and was the guardian of swords. I’d catch their act a few days later.
The first members of Zirk Ubu I saw working their individual acts were Mango and Dango, who are both 27. They had won the First Annual Seaport Village Buskers Festival in 2007 and were at the end of a five-month-long “pretty summer contract” for performing in Old Town. When I got there, they already had gathered a large crowd, several of them family groups, many of whom were regulars and happy to see them again. If I had to define their busker act: acrobatics, juggling, dance, humor, and a dose of straight-up nonsappy humanity.
Dango fell in love with busking while bumming around Europe. He put it simply: “Real life. Real props. Real sweat.” A few years later, back in San Diego, he met Mango around the local circus scene and circus school — Sophia Isadora Academy of Circus Arts — and soon thereafter they began a Mexico–to–Panama City tour, performing at schools, nightclubs, children’s fund-raisers, parks, restaurants, anywhere they could. They created a company called PIECE — People Involved in Expressing Creative Energy — which is now called, appropriately, Mango and Dango. Probably not a company you’ll see listed anytime soon on the New York Stock Exchange. When they’re traveling and busking, they give 25 percent of everything they make to local charities. There’s almost a spiritual quality, certainly a generous spirit, to their mission, their passion. Two weeks after getting back from Central America, they went to Europe, bought a van, and “performed on the cobblestone streets of every major city.” They spent some time at a Copenhagen circus school, sometimes had to Dumpster-dive for food. In describing these travels, these discoveries, they seemed drunk: on joy. They’d just purchased tickets for a three-month tour of Southeast Asia and Japan. They don’t have an agent, business manager, or personal assistants. They go, find a place to perform, perform, and then find another place to perform.
Their show in Old Town was a blast. My favorite bit ended with Mango wrapped around the head and shoulders (“like a spider monkey,” she told me later) of a big guy they pulled out of the audience. After the show, we hung out at a restaurant. All the staff knew them; several people walking by said how much they’ve enjoyed their act. Dango was tired. He ordered a large margarita. He said he needed to go home and lie down for a while. He’d earned it: their act is very athletic. He does most of the lifting and throwing; Mango does most of the leaping and flying.
The next night I caught Murrugun and Xylitol busking at Seaport Village. What can I tell you about Murrugun? In a nutshell, he is a raving lunatic! I love the guy. He was recovering from puncturing his esophagus while trying to swallow six swords at once. First of all, that’s about 20 pounds of metal down your throat. In the dropping (that’s what a sword swallower calls it) of the sixth sword, a few already in there “scissored.” He knew if he didn’t eat or drink anything he’d be okay until he went to the emergency room the next morning. After some surgery and an ongoing course of antibiotics, he was dropping a sword now and then but still hadn’t gotten back to multiples. He said he knew why what went wrong went wrong, and he knew how to prevent it. This night the wind was swirling (not good for eating or breathing fire), but I saw him do something I hadn’t seen before: he blew fire out of his nostrils. He also lay down on a bed of nails (big nails, sharp nails), put a piece of plywood on his chest, and coaxed four of the biggest guys in the crowd to stand on it, on his chest.
I went to a rehearsal for the Zirk Ubu show that was coming up the next night at Rich’s, on University Avenue in Hillcrest. Normally a gay dance club, it has a stage, and, most importantly, a very high ceiling with safe anchorages for the silks and the ring used in the aerial acts. The entire interior of the club is painted black, and it sports two giant disco balls, the first I’ve seen since the 1970s.
The cast was stringing large pieces of white crepe to both sides of the stage, some members were in half-costume, some not in costume at all. The colors for this show were primarily back and white, and a vague theme was “interruption.”
For the opening scene, they were all going to wear complete-body (even hoods, I think) white painter’s suits and white masks. Some were painting black-and-white designs on cardboard. The cast is the crew, although other people help out sometimes, maybe paying some dues, hoping to join the circus someday too. Madame Mandible walked in and said, “It looks like a goddamn backyard wedding.” Psych was up in a Genie personnel lift, double-checking that the silks were secured. The aerialists stand the best chance of getting hurt, of course, but if you can learn to fly, and you don’t, well then, it’s time to hang your head and go back to being a full-time pedestrian. The silks are 25 to 30 feet long, and Zirk Ubu’s have a little elasticity. Not all do, but Psych prefers them that way.
Psych is 40 and has been doing aerial work for only two years. He’s slightly introspective and cerebral, though he can be just as goofy as anybody else in the group. He came from a large Catholic family and never had the chance to discover his natural physical talents until he was older. He loves being a psychologist — he exudes empathy — but feels a little sad that he came to this other thing he loves only in the last few years. He told me his eureka moment — when he figured out he could do something like he’s doing now — came not too many years ago when somebody gave him a hula hoop and “I just got it immediately!” He went to circus school to learn aerial work but was told that at 38 he was too old to start. He did it anyway, and to see him you’d think he was born and raised up there on the silks.
The troupe has three primary aerialists: Psych, Mango, and Mademoiselle Mechanique. Dango will be up there someday. You can see it in his eyes. But get this straight: all four of these people are incredible athletes. Dango and Psych don’t look like bodybuilders, but they are ripped. Psych, warming up, was doing the equivalent of iron crosses, a difficult gymnastic move. Mango and Mademoiselle Mechanique are both slim (and both drop-dead beautiful), but when they’re doing their routines, their delts, their upper-back muscles, their triceps, are like ropes. Like the cordage you’d see on sleek and fast-sailing ships. Mango and Dango work out regularly, and the only place they have to practice at home is their small front yard, much to the delight of neighborhood kids. Their art form demands discipline. Strength. Concentration.
I joke about Murrugun being a candidate for the cracker factory. What he does takes tremendous focus, precision, knowledge (he’s read everything ever written on the art of sword swallowing), and serious guts. Okay, okay, he’s still nuts. So what?
The rehearsal seemed chaotic, but eventually a rough plan came together, the order of the bits, etc. Each show is in two acts, each with several skits, bits, scenes. Mademoiselle Mechanique, as I said, was directing. Sometimes Iain directs, sometimes others (you have to understand that “direct” with Zirk Ubu does not mean what it does normally).
Psych and Mango spent some time hanging around, literally, from the silks. Dame Bedlam and the Red Sultan were practicing a kind of light sword dance/fight, she at one point buried herself in a huge cloud of white tulle while the song “I Only Have Eyes for You” played. At another point (and not part of the bit), the Red Sultan walked up to Dame Bedlam, who was leaning against the stage, touched her face with a few of his fingers, and kissed her. Twenty-seven years and counting. Murrugun and Dango were miming Murrugun’s bit that night: he lay on a bed of swords (not nails, swords) and put a cinder block on his chest, and Dango smashed the cinder block with a sledgehammer. “Drive that frickin’ thing home,” said Murrugun. (He really said “frickin’.”) They were miming it so as not to waste a cinder block. Meanwhile, Xylitol practiced heckling: “That’s not a real cinder block!” It was. Troupe members will do this sometimes — heckle, boo, cheer, and applaud. They like to get the audience involved.
There’s the sound of shellfire and Jim’s noise music and older songs. I heard Dango say, “Has anyone seen my invisible claw hammer?” Miss Tickle was wearing a Marie Antoinette wig about two feet tall. She called herself “a small medium at large.”
They practiced their opening scene, called a charivari, in which the whole troupe was onstage in white suits and masks. This was something like a combination of (1) human sculpture, sometimes moving, sometimes not. Xylitol sat on someone’s (Dango’s?) feet (he was on his back), and he lifted her up and down rhythmically. Sheik Maracas’s noise music was somehow in sync with their movements; (2) a slow-motion dance by people from another world; (3) an animal — big cat — stalking and sizing up prey; and (4) what’s that thing called we did in arts-and-crafts classes? Fold a piece of paper many times, cut it with scissors in a particular way, and then unfold it. Like that, except giant, and moving.
Miss Tickle was onstage and reading something and said “Updike” when she meant to say “uptake.” A Freudian slip? Probably not: none of these people are analyzable, not even by Dr. Freud. Psych and Mango were practicing on the silks — an elaborate upside-down ballet. If it weren’t so athletic you’d be reminded of complex positions illustrated in the Kama Sutra. Asbestos said, “Anybody got an extra G-string?” Whenever I saw Mango, she was always moving, always half-dancing to whatever music might be playing. For this we should be grateful.
Mademoiselle Mechanique, as I’ve mentioned, is in a romantic relationship with Asbestos. She was born in San Diego and trained in competitive gymnastics for seven years. She was thinking the Olympics, but as a teenager she decided that “training every day was not nearly as much fun as friends.” A UC Berkeley grad, with a degree in fine art and literature, she loves the collaborative nature of circus. “I see circus as a hybrid, a collage of all the creative things I’ve done.” She prefers that to “the lone artist working to further one’s own ideas” and likes “the conversation with others, blending the many into one.” Her final comment: “Of course, a good laugh is worth a thousand words.” No argument from me, and I’m a word guy!
Asbestos the Clown seemed to me the embodiment of clowning. In costume and makeup he looked like a clown, from the inside out. He’s originally from Vancouver, B.C., and got a bachelor of fine arts from the University of British Columbia. After that, in the real world, “I gravitated toward artists, musicians, Vespa gangs, raves, troubled students needing assistance, and performance art.” He also got into giant puppet making. He performed for five years with the Fern Street Circus, another San Diego troupe that itself was modeled after the Pickle Family Circus, an established San Diego alt circus. He was codirector of Technomania. Like all the arts, circus arts are passed on, splinter, grow, leap, get grafted to each other, change, but don’t ever seem to forget the past, the elders, the roots. Asbestos teaches puppetry and performance at magnet schools with an arts focus and sometimes teaches workshops for “fledgling teaching students at Cal State San Marcos to help them incorporate puppetry and performance into their classroom work.” He loves the performing but also “the deep stillness and calm that comes five minutes or so after the show — successful or not. There is nothing really like it.” I think I actually did have a feeling like that after the show myself, and as I’ve admitted, my time onstage was brief.
The evening of the show, we arrived at Rich’s several hours before the first act at ten o’clock for what was to be a full dress rehearsal. Everyone seemed to be trying on different costumes. For a while I thought several new characters had joined the show. Dame Bedlam and Madame Mandible were trying different looks. Ditto Mademoiselle Mechanique. Turns out each troupe member was having publicity photos taken. Each was shot in full costume and in several different poses.
I started wondering when the dress rehearsal was going to happen. It was 8:30 or so. I was watching from the rear of the club. My perspective was slightly elevated, with a railing and some booths behind me. I think it was the VIP section normally, though I got the feeling this place, and particularly Zirk Ubu’s audience, was not class conscious.
Dango came by and asked me if I’d ever been booed off the stage. I said no, but I’ve had my share of bad reviews. I understand now that Dame Bedlam and the Red Sultan were easing me into my role as the Bad Poet. At rehearsal the day before, she gave me the shirt — white, with many ruffles, like the shirt from the famous Seinfeld episode — and I took it back to my room to try on. Now, she gave me the giant white pantaloons — or culottes? — that I had to wear. The Red Sultan and Dame Bedlam were saving the hat and the breathtakingly absurd ruffled collar for just before they shoved me onstage. I’d get my face painted white between acts.
The place started filling up about 9:30. None of the cast seemed rushed or worried; most were doing last-minute prep, stretching, fluffing things fluffable. By the time it was in full swing, I’d say there were at least 250 people there. The crowd was mostly people in their 20s and 30s, but I also noticed several people in their 40s, 50s. Many were punked-out. There were gay and lesbian couples, hetero couples, all sorts of ethnicities — African American, white, Asian, Hispanic — and some impossible to identify in any way because they, too, were in costume. One person had a giant Egyptian-inspired wolf head on his/her head. Not a mask, a whole head over his/her head. I couldn’t figure out how the occupant could see through it. But he/she could dance with it on. (Between acts, everybody dances!) It looked heavy, and I figured it was about 110 degrees inside. I’m saying again: the crowd is part of the show.
About 10:30 the show started with giant puppet hands moving from behind the crepe: probably Asbestos at work.
Backed by strobes, noise music, smoke machine, the whole troupe entered, semi-, no, about 83 percent coordinated. White suits, white masks, robolike movements, an almost ceremonial feel, futuristic, pagan. Mango climbed on someone’s shoulders. She’s always climbing on somebody! She peered at the audience through a little magnifying glass, or was it a monocle? As if to say: Are you ready for this?
This segued into Mango and Dango doing the tango, which turned into a tango/gymnastics routine. The crowd was going wild. Dango twirled Mango around almost as easily as an old-time top-hat dancer twirls a cane.
Asbestos blew a whistle and entered wearing a referee’s striped shirt. (The basic theme, interruption; the basic colors.) He gave them a ticket, maybe a summons, perhaps for dancing a little too suggestively in public. He exited, Mango tore up the ticket, and they were back, in a heartbeat, to their acrobatic/tango dancing.
There was more craziness: Miss Tickle came onstage and read from a script. Some dastardly act had taken place. Something about a neighbor coming by to borrow a “cup of nails.”
Shrouded figures with lights in their mouths and hands ghost danced until — suddenly — Mango pushed them with authority off the stage. The crowd went nuts when they saw her and, a second later, Mademoiselle Mechanique. The crowd knew what was about to happen: their hoop act, which is very acrobatic and slightly (with a wink) erotic. Both were wearing black-and-white stripes, and Mademoiselle Mechanique wore zebra stockings held up by a black garter belt. She also wore a black wig. They were working hard, acting goofy, coordinating their routine, and having a lot of fun! Ditto the audience!
Murrugun the Mystic was next. He had decided to forgo the bed of swords and cinder-block bit. “At least until I finish my course of antibiotics.” Instead he pushed three pieces of sharpened wire through his body: one through his left bicep, one through his right forearm, and one beneath his tongue, emerging beneath his chin. Tame night for Murrugun.
There was satire: two members wearing McCain and Obama masks duked it out, stopping mid-fight for a friendly drink, before resuming acrobatic fisticuffs. Obama seemed to win when he pulled off McCain’s pants. In case you’re wondering: he wears boxers. Then Obama seemed to be hitting on a woman who had been watching all of this — Mango, I think, wearing a Hillary Clinton mask. Hillary blew him off.
Then blackout to the Red Sultan and Dame Bedlam’s light sword dance/fight that I’d seen them rehearsing earlier. In full costume, with the lights and music, it was mesmerizing and started to get a little sensuous, and again, the interruption, the whistle, that wet-blanket morals cop, Asbestos! He was beginning to draw more boos and hisses. The whole cast gathered around him as if in rebuke: he was playing the kazoo now, which he seemed to think was a higher and more wholesome form of entertainment. Madame Mandible (I think) snatched his kazoo out of his mouth, much to the approval of the crowd. End of first act.
Intermission. Everybody danced, I say, everybody danced! I love what the famous anarchist Emma Goldman said about anarchist and commie gatherings: “If there’s no dancing, count me out!”
I put on my Bad Poet clown suit. I think it was Miss Tickle and the Red Sultan who swabbed and powdered my face white. Still no hat or collar. I went back to the back of the club. Three-quarters clowned-up and nobody blinked. My bit was near the end of the show.
The second act opened with a skit where Asbestos (now rehabilitated and a sympathetic character) was a painter. French — he wore a beret. Dango was reclining like a pasha with his head in Madame Mandible’s lap (who wore a spectacular white and feathered half-mask) as she stroked his floppy Mohawk haircut. Maybe it was a way for Dango to catch some rest and still be in a bit. When the scene ended, again interrupted by Miss Tickle, and Dango got up, I noticed he was wearing stilts.
I couldn’t hear much of what Miss Tickle was saying — I was between the stage and the increasingly larger and more raucous audience — but this bit quickly turned to one of the most artful and moving parts of the show: Psych and Mango on the silks. Psych climbed to the top of one of the silks in a second! If you can imagine a 25-foot waterfall moving upwards as fast as it moves downward — that’s how fast. In two seconds, he was dangling from one foot, upside down. Mango ascended the other silk, and they did gravity-insulting things, together and separately. As often in Zirk Ubu’s aerial work, there was a hint of sensuality. Beautiful bodies, in costumes that were not exactly burkas, hanging from and twirling on giant white curtains — how could that not be sexy? Lest you worry for Dango’s heart: Mango’s heart belongs to him, and besides, Psych happens to be gay. This bit alone was worth the cost of admission, $10.
Then, the Bad Poet. I walked onstage in the previously described attire, plus a huge fluffy doily for a collar and a conical white derby with a chinstrap. The hat also sported two large white cotton balls on its front. I wondered, at this point, if the costume was the true cause of the immediate “vituperation” mentioned earlier by the Red Sultan. The booing started at 9 seconds. It seemed the audience was unable to appreciate my metaphor of a poet’s heart compared to a gravy boat going over a waterfall. I was hooked off, literally, at about 15 seconds. No time for flop sweat. I could look at this experience as a character-building humiliation, or I could look at it as fun. No contest: it was frickin’ fun!
The next skit, Asbestos and Dango, on stilts, having a kind of stilt-dancing dance-off, a kind of a duel, over the affections, I believe, of Mademoiselle Mechanique. The athleticism of this bit — its wild energy and its wackiness — was astonishing. One move took abdominal muscles, on the part of Dango, as strong as the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was also one more example of Asbestos’s multiple skills.
There was one more bit where Xylitol, dressed in frilly white and looking like a China doll (she’s a tiny woman) and Murrugun dressed in drag, had an escalating fight in which he ended up holding a cannon and she a ballistic missile. They were fighting over the world, which Atlas (Asbestos) had dropped. Then, just before the battle of all battles, they looked at each other, shrugged, dropped their weapons, and walked offstage.
The final scene was similar to the first, but this time the cast came out on all fours, like big cats crossed with monkeys, their faces down and the masks on the top of their heads. Then, quite logically, they all stood up and did a little bit of the macarena. Lights up, crowd went wild.
Bless this crew of visionaries, joy-bringers, and nutcakes! May they flourish, and may San Diegans in the hundreds, in the thousands, after they’ve seen Zirk Ubu, go home a little more oddly alive than when they came.
Thomas Lux is the Bourne Professor of Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent book is God Particles, Houghton Mifflin Co.
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