“You want to see my rabbit head?”
The man asking me if I want to see what’s left of Thumper goes by the name of Flag. He came to New Orleans from Connecticut and spends his time here finishing off Know Nothing Zirkus Zideshow performances by lying on a bed of 2,723 10-penny nails and fellating himself. In his spare time, he likes to garden. Seems Thumper was eating Flag’s salads and he had no choice but to take the bunny out. The head â€“ eerily magnified by the yellow fluid preserving it in a jar I might have drunk apple juice out of at one point â€“ is shared with me as calmly as if it were a jar of cookies.
While I sit in the dark kitchen of this surreal circus’ new Bywater house, I am told in an equally calm fashion that, as part of their show, Piss Puddles drinks his own urine, Styx drills his urethra, Killo*censored* plugs a light bulb into her vagina, Camanda dances on top of her, Miles nails his penis to a board, and Eric pops out of a straitjacket.
Insanity is a good way to describe one of this circus’ show. The way they punish their bodies and survive is astounding. For Dr. Eric von Know Nothing, one of the founding members of the Zirkus, overcoming the physical limitations of the body is “never just a purely physical kind of thing.” Walking on glass like he does in Jackson Square to make ends meet requires the synergy of a disciplined mind, a fearless heart, and a well-conditioned body â€“ a synergy where, according to him, one finds “the power to do such things.”
This power extends to his vocal cords: while the Zirkus tours the United States six months out of the year, he spends two hours a night, five nights a week, pumping up his fellow performers by cajoling, taunting, screaming at and brazenly conversing with members of the audience. If that doesn’t work, he pulls out his 9 mm and shoots at one of them.
Yep, a lucky attendee gets to have an apple swept off their heads with the highly effective broom of a bullet.
“When you become close to death, your brain works a lot harder than it’s used to…and something awakens in you.” The Doctor uses his gun, one of death’s million plus business cards, to show people that there are “no hard and fast rules” binding the body or mind to a reality circumscribed by stereotypes and naive expectations of what is possible.
Eric admits that the shows of the past achieved this by shocking the audience with performances that were “just plain weird”. As the Zirkus transitions into more demanding acts, he hopes to demonstrate that with the “power of the brain, heart, soul, and body working as one, you can accomplish anything.”
Zirkus members began doing anything and everything back in 1998, when Eric, Flag, Piss Puddles, and Killo*censored* left Connecticut and New Mexico for New Orleans. Behind them were a band and other creative projects that never quite solidified into exactly what they were looking for. Ahead of them was a city below the sea, a place, according to Eric, that is home to a “morbid swamp energy” that “will push or break any artist.”
The show began on street corners by putting on highly experimental puppet shows for tourists. These freeform improvisations slowly evolved into the well-crafted circus traveling from New York to Los Angeles with stops along the way that have left enough of an impression to engender a cult following in Milwaukee. Their renown â€“ or notoriety â€“ has not wrecked their ability to appreciate the admiration (or repulsion) and have a good laugh at themselves.
When I asked them why Milwaukee would inculcate a fervent fan base, Piss Puddles turned to me and pronounced “beer” with definitive drollness just as Killo*censored*t was quietly telling me that “Milwaukee is a great place full of awesome kids.”
They could not say the same for Los Angeles where a booking is impossible without a promoter due to the city’s size. None seemed too concerned with the irksome logistics. After all, the edge of America was not an end but a hopeful beginning to future venues: Europe, Japan, Australia, and the Middle East.
Should that East meet the Zirkus’ West, the collision would prove interesting. How receptive would it be to Killo*censored*’s act, where she goes not only without a veil, but without underwear too? If they were flexibly receptive, very flexibly, it might go over well â€“ after all, her nudity is clothed in darkness and is not intended to pornographically titillate. To the contrary, it is impressively functional: she plugs in to a nine-volt battery, runs an electrical current through her body, and fires up a light bulb inserted into one of several places she refers to as “precarious”. Eric calls it the “Jesus walking on water” moment with total sincerity.
“When you watch that happen,” he continues, “that moment is miraculous and I’ve seen that attitude course through an entire audience time and time again.”
You may not agree with Eric â€“ that a woman using her vagina as a light socket is miraculous â€“ but Killo*censored* explains why she does her act and in doing so, perhaps explains the occasional expression of transcendent appreciation upon an audience member’s face.
“I want to know and I want other people to know that you really can do anything you want in the world and make a living at it…you can do anything you want and you’ll be fine.”
Not all reactions to the Zirkus’ performances are so divine. When Piss Puddles, one of two hobo clowns, fills a cup with his urine and slurps it down, laughter sometimes fills the room.
“That’s surprising, I didn’t think they would,” he comments. Even more surprising is Miles’ statement that “girls try to kiss [him] afterwards.” Piss Puddles assures me kisses are not often requested and then he sarcastically informs me that he’s improving his act â€“ by learning how to “gargle his urine to the tune of My Sherona” and tell good “shit jokes”, at which point Killo*censored* reminds the entire crew that “shit is not funny. Remember that guys? Shit is never funny.”
Piss Puddles’ counterpart is Styx. Another hobo clown of the Zirkus, he met Killo*censored* at an environmental protest in Oregon and she convinced him to join her back in New Orleans. He brought a drill and a hearty urethra. His performance involves sticking the bit of the previously mentioned power drill into the previously mentioned urethra and letting her spin. The volition to pull this off could be hereditary â€“ six months after being on tour, he discovered that his father used to be a clown, and Styx is proud of continuing the family tradition. Also, like the other members, the desire to change people’s perception of the possible and impossible impels him to drill his own penis. He likes “putting people in a different realm and changing their whole thought pattern.”
Styx’s penis is not the only genital under fire during a Zirkus performance. Miles too tests the mettle of his member by nailing it to a wooden board. “It’s pretty painful,” he understates. He describes the act further as a chance to show that he is “able to do things that other people could if they had the balls for it.” Besides the satisfaction of successfully daring to do what others are too timid to try, he enjoys “the look on people’s faces…a bit of disgust and terror. All the guys slowly move their hands over their dicks. It’s funny when the girls do it too.”
Camanda has a lighter touch. She puts on a pair of stiletto heels and dances atop a naked Killo*censored* while carrying a pair of flaming torches. To give her a groove, the Thalidomide Trio â€“ composed of any member of the Zirkus who is not busy with their own act â€“ plays haunting Tom Waits-like tunes that also function as a musical segue between the various performances, performances that finish off with Flag.
“I’ve trained in martial arts and stuff my whole life and I’ve done yoga and stretching and I have, uh, a pretty big penis.”
This is Flag’s explanation for how he manages to get on a bed of 10-penny nails and lick himself.
The position is incredibly dangerous. When he tosses an apple, the nails slide through its skin like needles through fat. A few minutes later, Flag’s rolling on this deadly contraption like it was a waterbed. It’s absolutely amazing – here’s this guy, made of the same stuff as you and me, lying on 2,723 tiny daggers and just plain refuting the death stored in their 2,723 vicious little tips. Then he brings on the self-fellatio and the performance becomes not only a denial of mortality and its accompanying frailties, but a graphically explicit laugh in the Reaper’s face by laying claim to sexual pleasure while his nails dig into Flag’s flesh. It’s ludicrous, impossible â€“ yet real. For once, it seems as if a human being is as strong as Grim.
As Eric explains, this is the sort of feeling the Zirkus wants the audience to feel as they “laugh histerically one minute and fear for their life the next….we want to make them believe in God…or disbelieve…I think that’s what the Zirkus is all about.”