Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Sideshow by the Seashore: Coney Island offers some of the best of New York theatre

Diablo Cody recently wrote a love letter to Coney Island in Entertainment Weekly, but she left out a one of its most delightful charms.

IMG_2269Coney 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.

NEW YORK-SIDESHOW/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.


3 comments on “Sideshow by the Seashore: Coney Island offers some of the best of New York theatre

  1. Black Scorpion
    December 28, 2009

    It is too bad you did not like my act. My goal on stage is to make people aware of what Ectrodactyly is. I try to educate with humor, my sense of humor.
    At Coney we perform, sometimes, up to 11 times a day and not every show is gold, even though we all try hard.
    I try to be a bright spot in the show and not the low light, but everyone has different likes and dislikes, some don’t believe “people like me” belong on stage, but others think what I am doing is great.
    The biggest compliments I have received have been from other folks who are have felt different.
    Also I think we all have personal pains, mine are more for the world in which we live in and how society and critics judge us, not so much for my hands and feet.
    Good luck with Critical Confabulations and hope your holidays have been wonderful.


    • Julie
      December 28, 2009

      Dear Black Scorpion,

      Thanks so much for writing and offering your view as the performer. I should have clarified that the act is different depending on the day, as well as offered that it’s performed in constant rotation all day long. The demands of that kind of performing can certainly alter any one performance on any given day — I could have come another time and Donny may have just not been that funny and fascinating. It’s always a crap shoot in live theatre, but a wonderful one at that.

      I applaud your efforts to educate, and I genuinely look forward to seeing you all again come warmer weather.

      All Best,



  2. Black Scorpion
    December 28, 2009

    PS sorry I meant to write “folks who have felt different” not “are have felt different”.


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