Hanging out with the cast of Freaks
What is normal? What is extreme? What is entertainment? These are the questions that arise when the hooks meet the skin.
Thu, Apr 9, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
"We can present something that is beautiful," said Sleazo the Clown.
The glass-eating, sword-swallowing and bed o’ nails-lying I could believe. But Andrew Stanton’s heart-dislocation act crossed my line of plausibility. And being a person who speaks before she thinks, I told him so. Right when he was explaining why he risks his life to do such a subtle stunt.
“The heart is the most life-threatening and maybe the least obvious,” the twirly-mustache-wearing man explained in a grave, thoughtful tone. “But I’ve been doing it for about 11 years. And I think I’m okay with that. I’d rather die doing something I enjoy than in a car wreck.”
“That’s the one I find the least believable,” I interrupted, trampling all over his deal with death.
He laughed. Uncomfortably.
I continued: “Maybe you just flex your stomach and it looks like a heart beating.”
“Well, there’s a move called the flutter that they do in belly-dancing. That might be what you’re talking about. I’ve felt and seen one of the world’s best belly dancers do that after I showed her my heart relocation. Side by side, they’re not even the same thing.”
“I don’t even have a ‘thing’ in mind. It just seems like it can’t be that, so it must be something ...”
“Want to feel the front of my spine?” He was determined to physically prove his honesty.
“No, no that’s okay.”
“Want to feel the front of my spine?”
“The front of your spine?”
“The front of my spine.”
“No, no, no.”
“Make two strong fingers,” Andrew said as he approached me.
“Oh, we’re doing this. Make two strong fingers.” He grabbed my hand and spoke like a surgeon. “When we go in, you’re going to press all the way in. And then you’re going to feel it up and down, and it’s going to feel like a piano keyboard.”
“Oh God,” I shut my eyes and turned my head.
He took my fingers and placed them against his stomach and then sucked in his stomach until I did feel something that felt like a xylophone. Certainly Stanton is skinny enough that you can almost see the front of his spine every time he inhales.
Okay, so I’m the jerk on that one. But then again. Does the stunt really seem plausible, possible? All the audience can see is a slight pulsating in the wrong part of his chest. Was I really supposed to believe that a series of body contortions could produce such a movement? Okay. There ya go.
And where might this interchange have taken place? The most natural assumption would be some back room in the Commercial Center. But you’d be wrong. This happened on the Strip. In a casino. On opening night of Vegas’ newest show.
Meet the neighbors
And what is this mysterious show that’s going on above beer pong at the O’Sheas casino? Put simply, Freaks is a six-person sideshow done in the style of a Broadway performance. “I don’t know of this show format anywhere in the world,” says producer Anthony Cools. The sensitive-stomached hypnotist is an unlikely champion of the weird. “I don’t have an interest in sideshow. As a matter of fact, they gross me out. I have to turn my head away,” he explains to me on opening night. But a few years back, when he saw Swingshift Sideshow perform at the Amazing Johnathan’s Halloween party, Cools decided he had the makings of something special. “It’s not about sideshow, it’s about a great show,” he reiterates. “It’s about taking talented people that can do things other people can’t that people will pay a moderately priced ticket—$29.95—to come in and see.”
The cast consists of some amazing characters. There’s SleaZO the Clown (Aaron Zilch), a musician from a circus family who ran away from the circus to join a rock band (American Head Charge). When he found himself to be freakier than the freaky bands he admired, Zilch came full circle, back to the sideshow.
There’s Kelvikta the Blade (Kellie Christopher), whose bright personality is like a pack of summer-flavored bubble gum. A devoted ballerina, she turned toward sideshow after a ballet director told the then-12-year-old Kelvikta that her body wasn’t right for the part. Kelvikta replaced the torture of pointe shoes with other forms of dance and eventually sword-swallowing. “I am a masochist, but some people don’t understand that,” she says in her happy voice. “I’m just into a different art form than a painter.”
On the other hand, the delicate Brianna Belladonna is into one very traditional form of art. A tattooist first and glass-eater second, the blond beauty looks like a tattooed porcelain doll. The newest recruit to the sideshow, Belladonna started as a target girl for SleaZO, picked up a few classic acts and is now developing her own. “Right now I’m working on a hula-hooping act. But I want to do hula-hooping wrapped in barbed wire,” she says.
The life of the party is Lil’ Miss Firefly, the Midget of Mischief and Mayhem. The born performer discovered sideshow in high-school history class, when she chose to investigate a more interesting aspect of the ’30s and ’40s. Firefly fell in love with this corner of show business. “Sideshow was at its peak. That’s who your Brad and Angelina were, that’s who your mainstream stars were. They were putting smiles on people’s faces.” The 27-inch-tall performer also “liked that being different wasn’t a bad thing.” When Firefly decided to pursue her dreams, sideshow was a natural route. “I always wanted to be a performer. I knew from when I was very young that for me to be onstage, it’d have to be something different.” Firefly started teaching herself the art of sideshow, and “took it out of the closet” when she turned 18. And yet some do-gooders want to “save” Firefly from what they stupidly assume is something she has been forced into. She has one message for those idiots: “I do what I want. I’m not being held against my will. I do what I want. This is what I want to do. For the rest of my life.”
Not a magic show
After meeting this band of lovable carnies, it seems rude I could have ever have questioned their honesty. But I had good reason to be suspicious. Any show that chooses a soft-opening of Friday the 13th and a grand opening of April Fools’ Day is messing with the audience in some way.
Furthermore, America’s first sideshow was a gaffe (that’s carnie-speak for a fake). In 1835, P.T. Barnum purchased a slave named Joice Heth and touted her as the 161-year-old former nurse to George Washington. When she died a year later, an autopsy proved her to be half that age, according to American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers by Marck Hartzman.
Freaks writer-producer Bruce Block has a special relationship with Barnum, having played him in the national touring company of the Broadway musical Barnum! Bruce explains how his historical counterpart operated and how Freaks is different: “Barnum presented a man-eating chicken. And there’s a man with a plate full of chicken eating chicken. But we want to make sure our show doesn’t have any of the humbugs that Barnum had. That we deliver everything we say we do. We deliberately want to make sure there’s no magic in our show. Everything is legit.”
On opening night, producer Cools sat me down for an interview with the cast. The six were relaxing on what looked like a Goodwill couch. Between their hair colors, face paint and costumes, they looked like a rainbow had taken human form. Taking a chair, I felt bone-crushingly normal. Like I was the Establishment. Suddenly I was onstage.
The air seemed primed for a standoff. Then I explained my interest in sideshow, and all was well. It suddenly felt like I was sitting in on an NPR special.
My first time
When I first saw Freaks, I had no idea what I was in for. I was just along for the ride on somebody else’s ticket. Seeing the show, I was traumatized, but intrigued. It was like watching a live snuff film from a distance of two feet. My hands covered my eyes while my fingers spread to let me peek. Each stunt was more extraordinary and preposterous than the previous.
The show starts just cuddly enough for the viewer to relax. Bruce Block’s pet bunny gives an adorable intro. Then hooded figures beat a tribal rhythm while Andrew S. performs the first act: He belly flops on a spear and spins around on it. While the show doesn’t follow a clear story line per se, it does consist of a series of vignettes that seem to follow a logical through-line of tone and consistency. For example, instead of just plain old glass-eating, Belladonna bites off her wine glass when her date stands her up. The longer she waits, the more self-destructive she becomes, progressing to light-bulb chewing. Under Block’s direction, the classic bed of nails act becomes a fun, sexy vignette, with three rainbow clown babes seducing SleaZO as they press his body into the nails to the tune of “Sexual Healing.”
Firefly participates in two of the most memorable vignettes. In the first, she stands in for an anvil so that Andrew S. can demonstrate his eye-hook weight lifting. Later, Firefly takes center stage, where she strips down to a tutu and pasties and rolls around in broken glass.
Block also does a dark ventriloquism act with a throat-cancer puppet using a voice box. It’s a little homage to Block’s former America’s Got Talent competitor, Terry Fator.
The vagina-darts act will draw many a college beer-pong player upstairs. As promised, Kelvikta shoots a variety of targets with a blow dart of sorts. While the idea is exciting, the stunt is performed in a way that reveals nothing.
The acts seem to vary between painful and light. As SleaZO says, “You can only hit somebody in the face with a hammer so long until they get numb. You got to tickle them with a feather for a second, give them a little back rub, then when the hammer comes back, they’re really going to feel it.”
Freaks ends with an excruciating back-hook suspension, the skin of whichever cast member is being hooked slowly stretching and separating from their back muscles as they rise into the air.
When the show finally ended, I felt the relief of feet touching ground after a roller coaster. Even odder, the 70 minutes of violent performance art left me with a weird physical emotion: My soul had been fed through a meat-grinder, and it emerged a new entity, somehow purified.
After the show, I mingled with the college-age beer-pongers in the O’Sheas bar by the “Food Park.” Everybody else was oblivious to my soul’s transformation. Such was the visceral effect of Freaks.
It was at that moment, I knew I had to find out more. Who were these people who had provided such spiritual transcendence? What did it mean? Why were they doing this? What would lead a First World child to say, “I want to eat glass when I grow up”? Certainly the answers were important. Certainly it was significant that all this was happening on the Strip. And yes, I did have problems falling asleep that night.
My second time
I dreaded seeing the show a second time. I didn’t know if my stomach could handle it. To my surprise, the show didn’t shock me; I was already desensitized.
My newfound fortitude allowed me to concentrate on other aspects of the show, opening up a whole new layer of the performance. Now I could enjoy watching the audience’s reaction. And I could see beyond the shock value to the staging of it. No longer triggering the gag reflex, the sword-swallowing was a dance of seduction. Unfortunately, the electrifying meat-grinder feeling never returned. And I dread the level of horror I’d now have to witness to feel that way again.
N is for normal
Just like everybody else’s, my adolescence was filled with the conflicting desires to be special and to fit in. Thank God for growing up, where we can take comfort in the knowledge that nobody cares either way. Still, sometimes a small insecurity wedges its way under my protective wall of assumed apathy. What if everybody realizes I’m weird? Despite a fairly normal exterior, I’ve passed through phases where I’ve feared becoming the 1,000-pound lady, the bearded lady and most recently, the Cyclops, during a particularly bad bout of pink eye. These are the types of emotions that remain buried, waiting to bubble up like a volcano at the worst time.
The sideshow is like a jackhammer that picks below the surface and clears out all the secret worries, resolidifying our role in society. I’m not weird at all in comparison to that guy, audience members comfort themselves, for better or worse.
Bruce Block sums it up quite well: “The sideshow has always challenged what’s normal, what’s not normal, alternative lifestyles, and it’s almost always had protesters, right from the beginning. It stirs up emotions. Which is exactly why it makes great theater.”
Naturally, the director can explain sideshows’ deeper meaning. But can the general public? After the show, I approached the most vocally responsive audience members: two dudes who had yelled, cringed or hoo-ha-ed after each stunt. Did they get it? The self-proclaimed punk rockers, who both declined to be identified and complained of tattoo discrimination, described what they saw as the draw of the sideshow: “It’s the black sheep of American society. Everybody loves to come out and check out the weird people. So why not? I hate to say ‘weird people,’ but I don’t know any other way to describe them.”
Cools offers a different view, “I don’t think anybody’s a freak. I really don’t. I think these are all individual people that found a way they can enjoy themselves while getting paid for it.”
“But if nobody is a freak, then why is the show called Freaks?” I ask.
“I think you’re looking at it too deep as far as the title of the show,” he answers. “If you go to see Céline Dion, the show is called Céline Dion. [ed. note: If you want to get technical, the show was actually called A New Day ...] If you see a bunch of freaks doing freaky things by society’s norm, the show is called Freaks. It wasn’t going to be a social label at all. It was supposed to let the typical tourist from Des Moines, Iowa, know exactly what the hell they’re getting into when they walk through the door.”
I’m all for warning the tourists. This show could burn the retinas off the unsuspecting farm frau. But is it possible to call someone a “freak” without invoking a social label? One way to solve the problem/skirt the issue is to invoke an everybody-nobody dichotomy. If everybody is a freak, then, by definition, nobody is. Cools, a good sport, offers his opinion. “I think everybody’s a freak in their own way. At one point in time, everybody thinks about doing something that’s wrong. Now, whether you do it or you don’t, you’ve thought about it. Does that make you a freak? I guess it does.”
She makes her own hats
Even though I was completely shocked, horrified and et cetera-fied by watching Andrew S. stick a skewer through his and Kelvikta’s biceps, it still struck me that he kissed her on the forehead before and after the procedure. The gesture seemed at first cruelly ironic. But upon second viewing, I realized it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen. A penetrating metaphor for true equality of the sexes.
Block explains how he created this scene by holding up a mirror to the cast: “The first day, I was watching videotapes, and Andrew shows me a tape of him pushing a skewer through his arm and then through his girlfriend’s arm, and he says to me with such heart, he goes, ‘You know, Kellie makes her own hats.’”
- From the Calendar
- Freaks at O'Sheas
- Thurs.-Sat., 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., $36.50
- From the Archives
- A bizarre display of darts and a chatty little person on a freakish Saturday night (3/26/09)
- Freaks come out Friday at O’Sheas (3/12/09)
- The return of the freak show with 999 Eyes (11/8/08)
At this moment of the retelling, Block, a veteran performer, takes a perfectly timed pause to let the gravity of Kellie’s hat-making sink in. I laugh to diffuse the tension.
“‘You know, she makes her own hats,’” Block repeats his point. “[Andrew spoke] with so much pride and love.
“And I’m going, ‘You’re pushing a meat skewer through her bicep!’
“And he sees how beautiful the hats are and how beautiful she is. Everybody else has performed [the meat skewer act] as ‘Look at this, it’s horrible, and it’s scary! Aren’t you scared!’ [But] there was a moment for me while I’m watching this horrible thing, he says something so beautiful and loving. He doesn’t realize what he’s telling the audience is, ‘You know, she makes her own hats.’”
But it’s not just me and the crazed director who think the meat-skewer act is romantic. The pain-hating Cools also sees something more: “Is it a sexual undertone? A drug undertone? Or is it a love undertone? I’d like to think of it as a love undertone. Did you see the look of joy on Kellie’s face while Andrew’s sticking this skewer through her arm? They’re sharing a level of intimacy that people cannot relate to. I can’t relate to that. But I think it’s one of the most romantic pieces in the entire show. People are going to be looking at me like I’m just messed up, too, but, you know.”
Freak in disguise
Of all the freaks in Freaks, one doesn’t belong. You shall know “her” by her conspicuous lack of self-torture and ridiculous wig. This is the Church Lady if the Church Lady was repping for Satan. Popping in between acts, the character acts as a somewhat obnoxious comic relief in an ugly blue dress. The audience cringes for him. And then laughs at him because that’s what audiences at freak shows have paid to do.
Then a funny thing happens. Somewhere towards the end of the show, the freak takes off “her” makeup and reveals a normal man underneath. It’s like watching Halloween in reverse. That man is Bruce Block.
“As a performer, one of the worst things you can do is direct a show you’re in. Kind of out of necessity and needing a job, I did. I was in the last two seasons of America’s Got Talent. I went pretty far.
“Anthony [Cools] had an image of a topless transvestite. Somehow he had asked me to be the topless transvestite/bearded lady. And the truth was, I hate doing it; I hate putting on the dress. I won a Best of Las Vegas award as a legitimate comedy magician from the Review-Journal in 2005. I had nine national television appearances last year as myself. I’ve always been the guy who was really close to making it but never did. For me there was something humiliating; the only way I could get a job was to do my act in a dress. I’d try to make best out of it, write the best lines, make it as funny as I can, and the hard truth for me was I didn’t want to do it.
“What turned things around for me was I wrote this piece at the end. Because they wanted me to be topless, I put together the burlesque number where I strip. I received a lot of compliments on the acting. Because I was finally able to bring my own truth, which was looking in the mirror saying, ‘I don’t want to wear this dress. I don’t want to be this person in a dress.’ So it starts off, and it looks like a comedy burlesque piece, and it becomes a strange moment where this character is going away, and I get to stand on my own for what I had accomplished in my life.
“Now I’m growing to like the part, because in the performance, it’s about telling the truth. My truth was I hate what I had to do in the show. I hate that I have to wear a dress, and somehow that’s the gig that I had to get. That’s what made me feel like a freak. I felt like the outsider of the freaks that wanted to get out, where everybody else loved the freak analogy.”
Isn’t this the truth for everybody? In order to “make it” we all have to don a dress of some form or other. Then there’s the dream of one day being able to shed that costume and being able to stand on your own personal merits. This is the dream and the fear in inherent in the freak show. To be accepted for everything about you that is weird.
Coney Island, Las Vegas?
Las Vegas has always had a three-ring-circus feel to it. And yet, the surprisingly conservative nature of the casinos has historically proven to be infertile soil for the growth of the modern sideshow, or really any show that pushes the envelope. So when Swingshift Sideshow, et al, landed this casino gig, it was an achievement. Is it possible that this pebble may ripple the pond?
The charmingly ramshackle venue of O’Sheas is perfect for Freaks. The show needs a gritty back-alley feel to tether it to reality. It seems as if all of O’Sheas was created so that the visitors to Freaks must walk through the casino’s bizarre atmosphere before entering the theater. It preps the viewers. The poker tables that seem to sprawl out onto the sidewalk of the Strip. Vince Neil’s tattoo shop. The mascot is a leprechaun.
“I’ve been waiting for this spot,” Cools says. “I’ve been waiting to find a casino and an operator that will stand up and say, ‘Okay, this is a great idea. This is what Vegas needs.’ We don’t need another Cirque de Soleil. I’m sorry, we don’t.”
Just going to prove how unprecedented this show is, the hypnotist-visionary often had more faith in landing a casino than the performers did. “When Anthony said, ‘I want to bring you on a big Las Vegas stage,’ which blew my mind, you know, because I heard Vegas wasn’t ready for us,” says Stanton.
SleaZO was equally amazed by the opportunity. “It’s cool, because we had so many people tell us, other people in the sideshow business, were like, ‘You guys are never going to get a show in a casino. They’re not ready for it. It’s not going to happen.’ Just to be able to go, like, ‘We worked on it, we kept at it, we believed in this town, and now we’re here.’”
Lil’ Miss Firefly felt the same shock at the idea of a permanent casino gig: “I remember SleaZO telling me in 2007, when we were on Warped Tour together, that we’re going to be in a casino one day, and I was like, whatever. Then even this past October, he was like, ‘You should move to Vegas,’ I’m like, noooo.”
Artist in exile: Jim Rose Circus
Even in Jim Rose, famous sideshow-monger and Vegas resident (when not on tour), envies the luxury of a casino gig. “I’d love to play Las Vegas with [the Jim Rose Circus]. Goddamn, are you kidding me? I would love a casino gig. I’ve been hitting those boards for a lot of years. I’ve earned it,” he says in a phone interview, three days after returning from a two-year tour abroad.
And yet the dream gig comes with a pair of golden handcuffs. The stringent conservatism of the casinos limits the performers’ artistic freedom. “Unfortunately, there’s stuff that we can’t do here because it’s considered whatever,” says SleaZO. “That’s one of the things that I’m real proud of is that this is a show that lives up to people’s expectations of what they can see in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, you can do puppetry of the penis on Broadway, but you can’t do it here in Sin City at a casino.”
As Rose says when I describe Kelvikta the Blade’s vajayjay darts act:
“But did they show her vagina?” he asks, point blank.
“No, they didn’t show it,” I answer. “You know, all the morality issues in casinos?”
“I’m very aware of them, That’s one of the reasons I don’t have a career here. I would always want to show the vagina.”
“I think it’s something that needs to be reevaluated,” SleaZO says of casino restrictions. “Especially in this economy and considering that there’s Indian casinos popping up everywhere, there needs to be something special about Vegas, and it should be Sin City.
“On the flip side of that, O’Sheas has been awesome to us. This is a great venue for us. And with the beer pong and the Vince Neil Ink, I couldn’t think of a better place for us to be on the Strip.”
“You know, I take my hat off to O’Sheas for putting that show there,” Rose says. “Letting a show like that to be on the Strip, that’s a first in itself. A show like that has never been on the Strip. Not a show like that. Wow. Way to go, O’Sheas. And way to go producer guy. And writer guy. Congratulations to the whole team, really. I’m proud of them.”
It always ends with a Doors song
when the horrors are over, the old familiar twisted refrain of “People Are Strange” plays as the audience tries to shudder off its memories of what it just saw. The song is taking what the audience has just seen and promising with its minor key that maybe the show offers more truth than they’d like to believe. Most hurry to the safety of the casino. In the end, the show leaves a memory of an altered experience for the Iowa tourists to tell the farmers back home. What Vegas does best.
Suspended dust particles catch and sparkle in the blue lights of an empty stage. And for a moment, when the audience’s minds are still altered, it seems like magic could exist. But what kind of magic, they are afraid to know.