IN THE 19th century, the carnival would tail the travelling circus like some parasitic commercial venture. Lurking in the shadows of the big top was the sideshow world of snake charmers and magicians, games and brightly painted carousel horses, and the unfortunate displays of “human curiosities”, so aptly characterised by sociologist Robert Bogdan as the “pornography of disability”. In recent years, the carnival has kind of lost its charm. Coin-fed machines have replaced the wandering carnies and the ferris wheel seems slow and daggy compared to the latest gravity-defying roller-coaster.
Until last night, my own personal carnival experiences were less than satisfactory; I remember buying lengths of tickets from a pimply teenager in a booth, dreaming of winning the largest stuffed teddy or, more recently, ending my day at the carnival by weaving unsteadily home from Flemington, all bedraggled feathers and blistered toes.
Within half an hour at the Carnival of Mysteries, however, I was propositioned by an undead, sex-crazed Anatomically Correct Librarian, had an ink portrait of my hands drawn, and was serenaded by The Living Radio in a sideshow tent the size of a wardrobe. I watched a magic show where every trick went hilariously wrong, and saw a demonstration in shakin’ it by The Handsomest Dancer Ever Born.
These are just a handful of the acts created by 30 artists, all of which explore the broad themes of innocence, passion, mercy, forgiveness, and love.
Performance artist Moira Finucane and theatre director Jackie Smith have combed through history, fiction and Hollywood legend to create this warped and wacky carnival, transforming the bowels of fortyfivedownstairs into an opulent – and authentically shabby – den of iniquity and awesomeness. You can imagine these performers rolling up the colourful curtains and lengths of golden beads to take their little bit of sawdust magic to the next town.
Hand-painted panels and flickering signs point the way to The Tent of Miracles or The Shrine of Mysteries, where acts as varied as a burlesque striptease or a tap-dance number are squeezed into tiny, curtain-lined spaces. The Pleasure Garden, packed with tables, is the site of more impromptu performances and, of course, fairy floss for sale.
The beauty in Carnival of Mysteries is all in the imaginative details. A ticket to the show buys a wad of “illegal tender” and entry into as many performances as you can afford. A “carnival passport” doubles as a program, featuring pages of old-fashioned advertisements describing the curiosities on display; promising seers, gigolos, and erotic performances for those with enough “carny cash” to enjoy them.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to see every act in Carnival of Mysteries and so no two experiences can be quite the same. Some of the individual acts are more exciting than others; the performances by Finucane and Maude Davey, in particular, are worth hanging around for.
However, most acts have that edginess of irony and dark humour that balance the sexuality of burlesque performance, gently mocking everything we love, and love to hate, about a trip to the carnival.