Be prepared: A night at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus owes far more theoretically to Tod Browning's Freaks than it does to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. Started seven years ago in New York by graphic artist turned fire-eater Stephanie Monseu (aka Philomena) and her lover/mentor, Keith Nelson (Mr. Pennygaff), this circus stands firmly on a foundation of subversive thought.
But it's not all anarchy under the Bindlestiff big top, which might go up under any roof --from a divey punk-rock bar or laundromat to Denver's LIDA Project Theater, where the circus will roost for two nights this week, with its Autonomadic Bookmobile and sideshow in tow. The Bindlestiffs include some truly talented circus folk. Needless to say, though, performances -- which include such acts as Philomena's patented vaginal platespin and Kinko the Clown's drunken antics -- are for mature audiences, but only because, "ringmistress, fire-eater, whip-cracker, stilt-walker" Monseu insists, it's adults who most need a break from contemporary culture's jaded sensibilities. And if the humor is blue, the intent is not.
"Originally, we wanted to be a traveling nomadic celebration of live entertainment -- actually more of a medicine-show type thing with a bookmobile," Monseu says. Born of Nelson's affiliation to Autonomedia, a small radical publisher that prints the kind of books you won't see at Barnes & Noble, the pair's initial concept pictured everyone in an old-fashioned cross-country caravan, hawking radical literature and acting as a kind of "living conduit for radical communities in the U.S." And, somehow, the fire-eating and attendant sideshow curiosities seemed the fitting metaphor of their quest, though the circus end quickly overtook the bookmobile concept in importance.
"The circus ties together a lot of the theories and ideas presented in the books; cultural criticism and unedited self-expressions are things that the circus embodies," Monseu notes. "The circus represents that moment where you drop your guard, where your disbelief is suspended and you're ready to be transformed by a moment of beauty or of joy. The circus invites a magical sense of wonder in adults and children alike, and this literature is homemade, like the circus is homemade, created out of love and presented in love. It has a real sense of immediacy you won't find anywhere else." Look no further.