The Accidental Circus Variety Show doesn’t have it all. There aren’t any animals, like you’d find at Barnum & Bailey. There’s no nudity on display, as at those nouveau burlesque shows. No one has mad acrobatic skills. This isn’t Cirque du Soleil.
But people keep lining up, says Paolo Garbanzo, director of the seven-member troupe, which has been keeping audiences aghast since 2002. And he knows why: We like to look at what we’ve been taught to look away from.
“It’s very guttural,” Garbanzo says. “We’re gonna show you stuff, and it’s gonna be things that you don’t want to see, but you think you do. They’re all kind of gut reactions — like, ‘You don’t really want to see a bearded lady, do you? Do you? Yeah, you do!’”
Actually, this motley crew even lacks said hirsute female. But they do have a full stable of other talented weirdos eager to show patrons an uncomfortably good time.
Garbanzo, who was born one Paul Hudert and grew up in Richmond, Va., says that what his quirky little troupe lacks in numbers, it makes up for in punch — which will be on full display Thursday night at the Red Palace. Their “Post-Hypnotic Holiday Tour,” a fractured take on the warm fuzzies of Christmas, might be just the cure for any lingering wholesomeness overload.
“Imagine the worst family holiday meal that you’ve ever had to sit through,” Garbanzo explains. “And now, add circus people.” That means getting extra-festive by stapling a few Christmas ornaments to someone’s skin.
The Accidental Circus crew is a diverse one: Garbanzo himself is an internationally acclaimed juggler and winner of the 2007 International Jester Competition. Shoshanna Hill and Kimberlie Cruse perform as the comedy duo Sidetracked. Madame Onca belly dances, August plays the accordion and Darbuka Dave is on drums. Then, once you’re warmed up, D.C.’s own Mab (“just Mab”) might walk on glass, bust out of a straightjacket or eat fire.
So much of entertainment, Garbanzo says, is about surprise. And the Accidental Circus certainly delivers that — in the form of flying knives. “From what I’ve heard of the new stage at the Red Palace, the ceiling is approximately 7 feet high, so I’m gonna do a lot of juggling on my knees,” he says. But fear not: Garbanzo’s been juggling since he was 12 years old.
Then again, it’s a cozy venue. And fear is exactly the reaction these guys are looking for.
Garbanzo stresses that audience participation is key to maximizing the full creep-out value of the Accidental Circus experience. So, at each show, the group will pull one brave soul — “probably the biggest guy we can find” — and have him or her stand on Mab’s head while she lays on shards of broken glass. She “puts her face right in it,” with one of the participant’s feet on the back of her head and the other between her shoulder blades for balance. (Safety first, kids.) “If he steps off and if all goes well, Mab still has a face” and the volunteer goes home with a good story. “Everybody sees the show, but only 1 percent of the audience gets to be in the show,” he adds. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I watched this guy stand on her head.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘I stood on her head.’”
» Red Palace, 1210 H St. NE; Thu., 8 p.m., $10; 202-399-3201.
Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo by Jonell Franz