The Other Circus
By S.D. Liddick
IT'S A COLD, MOONLESS Saturday night in the winter of 2006—nay, it’s downright freezing—and the aluminum bleachers I’m sitting on aren’t helping matters. I’m in a backyard off Commercial Street, near the industrial district of downtown San Diego. Looking at the graffiti littering the neighborhood in front of the house—which has been converted into the Center for Amusing Arts—I realize this is the new line between the rampant capitalist gentrification of downtown and the seedy underbelly that’s inhabited the place for decades. It’s also a cultural battleground, the beachhead between the Mexican flags and flowery Spanish of Logan Heights and all those Labrador-walking vanilla faces pouring out of the coral-like edifices of downtown.
I crack open a beer—a cold drink being the last thing I need at this point —and shuffle to the back of a small crowd to get a better line on the soothing fire emanating from a charcoal grill that’s been remade into a propanespewing sculpture. The industrial (and very functional) piece of art reminds me of the Burning Man festival held every year in the Nevada desert, and that’s no coincidence. The Technomania Circus (which I’ve come to see) and Burning Man were born of the same ethos—and some of the self-same characters.
A look around the audience reveals a hodgepodge of faces and backgrounds. There are pockets of laughing 20- and 30-somethings, sipping on their own beers. There are mothers with strollers and fathers carrying swaddled babes. There are punks and a handful of hipsters, a couple of knockouts and a string of everyday Joes. The crowd is mostly white, but with a feeling of inclusion and openness.
The show starts late, and there’s a spate of scrambling about the small stage at the center of the yard. A dozen performers straggle to get dressed, move props into position and prepare for the opening. Nothing in the show, however, is to run smoothly. The 8 o’clock start time turns into something more like 8:30, transitions are awkward and sometimes painfully slow, lines are missed, and the band—the Baloney Ponies—is beset by long delays.
But this is part of the charm of the show.
This is urban, underground art, and it’s no accident it’s taking place in the heart of San Diego’s cultural war zone. The Center for Amusing Arts marks the spot where, one Saturday a month, the Bohemian underground breaks the icy surface of polished capitalism. And it brings laughter, horror, the bizarre and the unexpected to an increasingly antiseptic, gentrified downtown. This is a scene out of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf or a movie about the resilience of the serfs in Stalinist Russia . . . living proof it’s not money that creates entertainment but the indomitable will to entertain.
After the first delayed segue, the Baloney Ponies finally pull a song together. The singer, barreling out in a heavy Balkan accent, explains that where he comes from, in Zambonia, “we have many problems.” And one of the greatest problems they have, he says, is with the Jews . . . “Jews, Jews, Jews,” he sings. The seven-piece band is costumed in everything from pirate garb to a clown’s outfit, and it’s clear they’re talented musicians. So talented— with the nature of their campy song so poignantly gypsy—the apparent anti-Semitism passes for the moment. But this isn’t East Texas, I’m thinking; this crowd is decidedly egalitarian. This band must have some cojónes— or real stupidity.
The cast of the Technomania Circus is many things— Bohemian, artistic, performance-minded, struggling, determined, happy, impoverished and more —but it is not stupid. After a few refrains, it becomes clear the singer is talking not about Jews but juice, the orange and apple type, and that my mistaken interpretation was a setup, hijinks designed to foster group apprehension. The ploy works brilliantly. As soon as the crowd understands the play on words—and the associated manipulation of a societal taboo— a whooping and a hollering and a giant sing-along ensue.
Whatever the Technomania Circus lacks in polish, it more than compensates for in wit, talent, clever ad-libbing and charm. For the rest of the night, people from the audience—an audience that becomes a part of the show itself— laugh riotously, shouting, “Juice! Juice! We need more juice!” Throughout the show, a troupe of talented dancers, trapeze artists, clowns, vaudevillian actors, bearded ladies, swordswallowers, fire-blowers and show-people demonstrates what a determined group of entertainers can do in their spare time —and on a minimal budget.
One of the more visceral—and disturbing— acts of the night is Murrugun the Mystic (San Diego’s own Scott Nelson). Nelson takes his act to different parts of the state and, periodically, to Las Vegas. He is a sword-swallower, a fire-blower, a coal-walker, and he has a penchant for piercing his body with metal pins and rods. Most in the audience are transfixed when he sticks an ice pick through the inside of his mouth and out his chin. Some are clearly skeptical; others have to look away.
I don’t doubt him until he eats a length of surgical cord, pretends to pierce his stomach with a sterilized hook, and pulls out the cord through his stomach wall. Then I doubt his entire act . . . until the day, three weeks later, when he pulls out an X-ray photograph he says he had taken in a Tijuana hospital—an X-ray that clearly shows a sword sunk into a human torso, all the way to the hilt. Then he shows me the scarring on his body, introduces me to a long and bizarre world history of body piercing and manipulation—and convinces me beyond a doubt that everything he does is for real.
Murrugun, like all in the Technomania Circus, may be rough around the edges—and may walk a tightrope through the limits of societal taboo and comfort—but they are as real as Commercial Street and the invisible social war that’s made the neighborhood a resilient hotbed of underground expression.
The Technomania Circus performs December 2 and 9 at the Center for Amusing Arts, 2438 Commercial Street in Logan Heights (technomaniacircus.com). The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $15.