“Now, I know a lot of folks are feeling depressed this time of year,” taunts a clown called Mr. Pennygaff (Keith Nelson). “But I find that if you drill a hole in your head, you can remove all those cloudy thoughts.” He then twists a five-inch screw up his nostril with a hand drill, as the packed crowd at Williamsburg’s Loft Theater writhes in their seats.
Over the past five years, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus has titillated fans with campy burlesque and extreme body play. Performers Nelson and Stephanie Monseu began their alternative circus to promote Williamsburg’s anarchist press, Autonomedia, along with their own nomadic lifestyle. What started as a traveling DIY freak show has evolved into a pansexual revue, mixing gender-bending sideshow and vaudeville stunts with polished circus acts.
This year’s Winter Cabaret features trapeze artist Miss Una performing a rare corde de lisse routine and Russian-trained Anna Jack, who transforms herself into a human slinky, spinning 50 silver hula hoops up and down her body. There’s also a guest appearance by a U.K. flea circus and Scotty the Blue Bunny, a kind of Harvey the rabbit in drag, who cracks jokes and passes out “Honorary Homosexual” awards.
Nelson and Monseu dazzle the crowd with sword-swallowing and fire-eating feats. But now that they’ve moved off the barroom floor and into an actual theater, the Bindlestiffs need to flesh out their characters and themes to redefine what a radical circus can mean. There are hints—like when Monseu dresses up as a Giuliani-crazed Keystone Cop and fucks a drag queen clown on a bed of nails. But having tramped upon the perfect vehicle for satirizing America’s schlock culture, the Bindlestiffs still feel like they’re riding a few too many one-trick ponies.