Tassel-twirling burlesque veteran Darlinda Just Darlinda and her partner-in-circus Scary Ben have a love affair with Coney Island. Tonight, their Bushwick Burlesque series will feature 10 spectacular Coney-born acts to raise funds for Coney Island USA, a non-profit whose facilities for sideshow and burlesque were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Even as the cabaret and underground circus scenes thrive at venues like House of Yes, Coney still carries cultural cachet with the young and hip of North Brooklyn as a locus of performance. It’s still relatively rare to find sideshow acts such as fire-eaters, snake-charmers and sword-swallowers north of Coney Island.
Donny Vomit, a charmingly debonair dandy whose pinstriped, porkpied look is a wacky contrast to the straightjacket and human blockhead acts he’s known for, plied his trade on the Coney Island Freakshow stage for seven years.
“Although we’re doing a show in Bushwick, I think everyone should just wake up the next morning and take the train to Coney,” he said. “The sideshow in Coney Island is one of the few shows carrying on the tradition of sideshow performance.”
Fellow vet Mat Fraser even plumbed the depths of historical knowledge to recreate a classic act by Stanley Berent, a performer with abnormal limbs who from the 1920s to the 1970s performed in Coney as Sealo the Seal Boy, for tonight’s show. “I lovingly recreated [the act] from historical research about Sealo, from interviews with many who worked with him,” Fraser said.
And then of course there’s burlesque – provided by a dazzling array of women who have all been crowned Miss Coney Island at one point, from contorting aerialist Miss Ekaterina and tattooed, sword swallowing Insectavora to burlesque producer Lefty Lucy and fire-eating songbird Cherry Delight.
If make it to tonight’s show, be prepared for what Scary Ben describes as “that philosophically dangerous theater where we’re looking for people to have a reaction to what we’re doing, whether positive or negative” Without spoiling any surprises, he says past shows have provoked in audience members a “fight-or-flight, how-do-you-react thing where they were not sure what’s happening to them and whether it was really safe.” (They don’t call him Scary Ben for nothing.)
As Darlinda Just Darlinda and Scary Ben see it, keeping Bushwick Burlesque a bit more on the fringe artistically gives it an edginess that many mainstream burlesque shows just don’t have. Burlesque, says Darlinda Just Darlinda, “is becoming more classic, because the audience is comfortable seeing a sparkly boa and fan, but we want people to get a little more uncomfortable and see something they’ve never seen before.”
“Bushwick Burlesque: Looka! Looka! Looka! Alive Inside! A Coney Island Love Letter!”, tonight at Bizarre, 12 Jefferson St., nr. Myrtle Ave.; doors at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m., tickets free (suggested donation $7)