A Circus Contraption rehearsal is unlike any other I’ve been to. Not that I was expecting company warm-ups or a director giving blocking notes to this collection of clowns, acrobats, jugglers, tumblers, and sideshow attractions. But the real surprise is that the musicians and artists actually speak to each other directly. (Anyone who’s ever done musical theater understands how rare this is.)
As a juggler named Merkin the Magnificent prepares for his entrance, a discussion begins about his cue. “I could give him a ‘ta-da,'” the accordionist says, demonstrating. “A ‘ta-da’ is punctuation,” says the trumpet player. “Something has to happen first.” It’s agreed that Merkin will get an introduction from the ringmaster, then a “ta-da” once he’s onstage. With that decided, trumpeter Pinky d’Ambrosia puts down her instrument and puts on a leotard for her next act as a tap-dancing member of the Hootchie-Cootchie Girls.
This is a large part of why the band and the performers get along so well: About half the musicians do double duty as featured members of the on-stage troupe. Drummer Bunny LaMonte, for example, has a hilarious routine as a martial-arts daredevil who insists on exhibiting his ability to withstand pain, each injury sending him tottering around the stage like a post-plunge Wile E. Coyote. Shmootzie the Clod, who plays everything from the banjo to the sousaphone, also performs sword-swallowing and sticks forks disturbingly far up his nose. Pinky also sings, tap-dances, tumbles, and dresses up as a banana for a comedy burlesque routine.
When I first saw Contraption back around 2000 (when they were still a homeless company), the music—a combination of gypsy, rock, and klezmer—was already solid, but the acts less so. Their taste for the grotesque and the dark was often more enigmatic than affecting, and though there were exceptions, their skills as circus performers were limited. Sure, you can learn to juggle pins or work a trapeze in a few weeks, but not to a level that impresses an audience. That takes years.
So it was a welcome surprise at rehearsal to see just how good the troupe has become as circus performers. “It’s partly cross-pollination from other local companies,” explains the company’s managing director Erin Brindley, citing Vashon’s UMO Ensemble and the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA). “Some of our members have also gone out of town for training.” But the most valuable resource for troupe training remains each other. “Every member of the troupe came from a very different path,” she says. “We have aerialists who started as dancers and clowns who started as jugglers. Two of our acrobats started as backstage technicians, and now they work all the time together as tumbling partners.”
Having just celebrated their 10th anniversary, Circus Contraption also just returned from Portugal, where they did their first overseas performances, including a burlesque festival—though Brindley admits that the company’s aesthetic isn’t particularly burlesque. “When I have to describe our company, I say it’s Cirque de Soleil meets Tim Burton meets Tom Waits meets vaudeville and Americana.” This variety makes the group hard to classify and market, but it also means they can produce shows ranging from kids’ matinees to Bacchanalian grown-up shows, like their upcoming Chestnuts Roasting on a Lake of Fire. In a typical Contraption mixture of dark whimsy, the plot focuses on Santa’s annual trip to Hell, where he makes sure all the bad little boys and girls get their lumps of coal, and the audience stands in for the partying damned.
It’s a clever and joyously perverse narrative, and reflects the influence of Brindley, whose work with the company has focused on creating stronger story lines to support what is still fundamentally a variety show. “I’m from a theater background, and creating a narrative where people are carried along by identifiable characters is always my goal.” So in addition to the song, the dance, the seltzer down your pants, there’s a story that people can get invested in. And when they pull that off, it just might end up being the cleverest stunt this eclectic group of artists can produce.