As sideshow maestro Todd Robbins prepares to take a swig of gasoline and launch a fireball toward the eaves of the Soho Playhouse, midget sidekick Little Jimmy enters from the wings in fireman regalia. Ringing a bell, brandishing an extinguisher, but seeming not to care at all, he deadpans, “Oh no. Fire. Fire. Help.” Robbins, giving a good-midget-help-is-hard-to-find shrug, sighs, “You have to love method acting.”
But don’t pity Robbins for his uncooperative co-star; pity Robbins when, for your personal delectation, he walks on broken glass, swallows a Moroccan dagger, munches on a lightbulb, and springs an animal trap on his naked wrist. In Carnival Knowledge, a one-man show with freak assistance, Robbins performs a panoply of sideshow skills. Though hundreds of 10-in-ones used to crisscross the nation each year, the American sideshow tradition has dwindled to the Coney Island outpost and Ward Hall’s occasional offering. Robbins, the dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School, wants to ensure the practice doesn’t die out entirely. He certainly makes a good case for its survival. His feats are stomach churners and heart delighters. You squirm and quail as the lightbulb crunches between his incisors, then cheer unreservedly as he swallows it down.
These acts aren’t tricks; each poses actual danger and requires a startling amount of technique. Nevertheless, Robbins intones, “I am only a man, do not worship me.” It’s as much these goofy one-liners as the gravity of the tricks that make the show such a delight. Impeccably dressed and possessed of a gangling grace, Robbins displays an easy hand with his self-effacing patter. Even the audience victims, er, volunteers, love him. He may occasionally, as when he performs his fire-eating, “make a complete ash” of himself, but he’s a bad-ash indeed.