by SOPHIE KERMAN
In the summer of 2011, I spent a few hurried weeks hunting for the perfect one-bedroom apartment on a graduate student’s budget**. One of the best prospects, at least on paper, was a garden-level with impressive square footage for the price. But when I got there, I was both fascinated and a bit frightened by the hobbies of the apartment’s current tenant. Covering the black cinderblock shelves was a collection of decapitated baby dolls. A devilish doll’s head, decorated with black Sharpie, sat atop a dartboard in the bedroom. Various odd and occult-looking objects were scattered around the living room and kitchen, and a hamster cage lay vacant in the corner. As eclectic as these decorations were, I wasn’t sure whether they were meant to be funny, terrifying, or just plain weird – and either way, after my initial reaction of surprise and curiosity, I left the apartment feeling kind of nonplussed about the place.
Such was my reaction to Strombolli’s Medicine Show, a variety show and circus act with a two-week run at In the Heart of the Beast. For those unfamiliar with the term, a medicine show was a 19th-century traveling extravaganza of freak shows, magic tricks, music, and, of course, miracle elixirs being hawked between performance acts. In theory, a modern-day medicine show should get hearts racing and, as Strombolli boasts, put “goosebumps on your goosebumps.”
The audience’s expectations are set high from the outset, both thanks to the show’s colorful set and its comic pre-show performer (a silent gentleman in charge of seating assignments, some charming little warm-up acts, and an interesting use of a car buffer). The show’s opening, a long parade of all the different performers, is both intriguing and creepy. And the wide variety of sideshow acts do, in fact, follow through on both the entertainment and the thrills promised in the production’s first few minutes. Some of the acrobatics are truly impressive – notably, a woman on a suspended metal ring – and the freak show acts are, indeed, quite freakish. (Both the fire breather and the human pincushion are quite a sight.) For entertainment, there are some well-executed sleights of hand, talented belly-dancers, and a masterful juggler, as well as a naked lady and several stripteases that amply justify the show’s 17+ advisory. (However, it is beyond me why the naked lady would appear earlier in the program than the stripteases – doesn’t that give the game away?)
Despite all of these wonders, Strombolli’s Medicine Show was quite possibly the most boring two hours and forty-five minutes – with no intermission – that I have sat through since the last time I got stuck at the airport. (And at least at the airport you can get a beer.) The show’s downfall, really, is the unrelenting drone of Strombolli himself (Daniel Polnau, also the show’s creator). Not only will his affected pronunciation of the ends of words like “minduuhhhhh” start to grate within the first half-hour, but the hour-and-a-half of build-up to the show’s main events starts slow and gets even slower.
The premise of the show is that the audience needs to get ready for some kind of “wedding” (the point of which is never explained), and in order to do so, Strombolli’s fire-breathing, whip-wielding assistant must ferret out tainted audience members to undergo various hex-breakings and exorcisms, none of which are particularly interesting. (A telling moment on Saturday night was the final audience participant, a middle-aged man who remained entirely impassive as a series of “fearsome” performers cavorted around him.) And once the wedding does take place, it seems like nothing more than an excuse to get to the show’s more risqué acts, which would certainly have been much more titillating had they occurred an hour or two earlier in the program.
What is such a shame about this production is that with some serious editing, it could become a madly entertaining carousel of human oddity and strange talent. (And major kudos goes to the band “Mother of Fire” for providing continuous live music for the entire show.) As it is, the show is more a test of will for those audience members who did not give in and walk out early. Like the grotesque array of mutilated dolls in that garden-level apartment, without any reason or justification for all that weird, jumbled mess, I’m just not buying it.
Strombolli’s Medicine Show at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 East Lake St., Minneapolis, 55407. January 21-28, 2012. Tickets $10 or pay what you can at www.hobt.org.
** Note to the hopeful students out there: Such an ideal apartment does not exist, unless you’re interested in losing your heat in December and becoming close friends with some Minneapolis City Inspectors.