a theatre, film & pop culture review
Diablo Cody recently wrote a love letter to Coney Island in Entertainment Weekly, but she left out a one of its most delightful charms.
Coney Island is the most un-New York place in all of New York. You immediately sense the difference as you walk off the train: the air is lighter, the energy is brighter. You can actually feel the absence of stress, impatience, crazily-accepted narcissim. It’s a sudden weightlessness, a kind of relaxation and openness you can only fully experience outside of the city — time actually slows down. You’re clearly not in Manhattan, and it’s nothing like Brooklyn. It’s the Venice Beach of the east coast, the Second Happiest Place on Earth. It’s an escape for every New Yorker, an awesome tourist destination, and rightly so: there’s no place exactly like it. And it’s slowly, and sadly, disappearing thanks to building developments and a lack of appreciation for its unique cultural and historical significance.
But let’s not get too somber here. Coney Island boasts some of the bestentertainment in New York. Never mind the crazy antics of the vast array of people — families, hipsters, performance artists, seniors, carnies, foreign tourists. Forget about the thrills — yes, thrills — of the Cyclone, the infamously painful wooden roller coaster, or the scarily swaying Wonder Wheel, or the cheesetastic-yet-awesome-frights of the Spook-a-rama. Let’s talk about the Freak Show, one of the most fantastic pieces of theatre to be found in New York, anywhere, anytime.
Consisting of six acts, with the performers gamely sharing hosting duties, the (more accurate and PC-titled) Side Show constitutes one of the city’s best shows in just 30 minutes. The devilishly charming Donny Vomit opens with the horrifying Human Blockhead in which begins by hammering a nail up his nose, and then ends with a terrifically terrifying flourish — can you say electric drill? Other highlights include the ridiculously flexible and endlessly jaunty Krissy Kocktail’s serpentine physical navigation of 18 blades as she lays happily trapped in a wooden box and the fearless Heather Holliday, who at 19 is the world’s youngest sword-swallower and can bend over while swallowing two swords. Not all the acts are as mind-blowing as these, and the disturbing low light is the one authentic “freak” in the entire show. The Black Scorpion’s entire act revolves around his Ectrodactyly, or in layman’s terms, his lobster hands. While he does walk on glass (which isn’t all that exciting anyway), the Scorpion’s only real asset is the rareness of his captivating hands and feet, but the fascination doesn’t last long — and unfortunately, his act does. After the initial reveal, the discomfort of the audience is tangible as the performer gleefully and repeatedly refers to his extremities as “super-happy hands/feet.” This classic “freak show” act has dramatically lost its appeal for our PC-world, and the Black Scorpion’s awkward, forced jocularity only thinly veils what must be a good deal of personal pain. Despite this, the draws of the other equally authentic Side Show by the Sea Shore acts are fantastically recreated with contemporary humor and striking talents.
While Labor Day generally marks the end of summer and with it, the closures of many Coney Island’s quirky amusements until the weather warms once again, you can catch the the world’s first professional non-profit theatre dedicated to keeping the American sideshow alive until the end of the month. Don’t miss out on one of New York’s finest treasures. I promise it’s the best $8 you’ll ever spend.