Back in high school, when the world seemed freshly made and full of possibility, I spent part of each July in the woods at the Oregon Country Fair. It began in 1969 as a swap meet for hippies, but by the time I started going—in the late 1990s, as a minor-league performer and gofer for a Seattle vaudeville group called the Royal Famille du Caniveaux, which now runs Seattle's Moisture Festival—the Country Fair had become an annual pilgrimage for American circus and European varieté performers: clowns from Berlin, jugglers from Denmark and Hawaii, acrobats and dare-devils from all over the United States.
The daytimes were hot, dusty, and crowded, but the evenings—once the public had been swept out—turned the place into an anarchic annual reunion with musicians and vaudevillians standing around campfires, smoking pot and drinking wine, telling stories from the past year (who beat a speeding ticket by juggling for a cop, who stole Clarence Thomas's watch at a gig in D.C.), and showing off new tricks. Still, it was a hippie festival, and one couldn't help breathing the air: People wore sandals and sometimes Utili-kilts, they slept in tents and ate granola and wanted everything to be "safe" and "nonjudgmental." Sometimes they chanted ohm.
One summer—roughly around the time that Burning Man, the Country Fair's electrified nephew, was becoming popular enough to ban guns—an old yellow school bus rolled into the performers' camping area and disgorged a younger, more sinister-looking pack of vaudevillians. They were scruffy road dogs in dusty suit vests and battered dress shoes. Instead of red wine and marijuana, they carried a whiff of whiskey and opium. They played music that sounded more like 1920s Gypsy jazz and Kurt Weill cabaret songs, and they comported themselves with a haggard romanticism, a gutter-dandy air that wouldn't become popular in rock and neo-burlesque clubs until years later. Their show fulfilled the promise of their entrance. It was all the usual tricks—juggling, acrobatics, sword swallowing, trapeze—but to my young eyes, Circus Contraption's stylish cirque noir made the rest of the Country Fair crowd look like weekend warriors.
I loitered around their bus, smitten. (Making my girlfriend at the time visibly jealous: "They're not that great," she kept saying.) I overheard one of them telling a story about a party where an old upright piano was shoved into a bonfire and someone played it while it burned. They seemed like they'd crawled out of New Orleans, or maybe someplace weird and unexpected, like Tulsa or Little Rock. I was thrilled to learn they were from Seattle.
Over the years, Circus Contraption kept touring and performing, collecting devoted fans. Its shows were always packed with a more diverse crowd than you'd find at other theaters—goths and geeks and a curiously middle-aged, middle-income demographic. The fans show up in costumes and face paint, they hoot and holler and shell out for the absinthe cocktails, T-shirts, and CDs. They believe the Circus's slogan: "A bracing curative for the afflictions of our times."
Circus Contraption was at the tip of the new cabaret movement that brought the reincarnation of burlesque, speakeasies (both genuine and regular bars borrowing the aesthetic), and other cirque noir groups, from the Yard Dogs Road Show to the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Circus Contraption is among the best—if not the best—in aesthetics, physical prowess, and musical acumen. (Led by composer, clarinetist, pianist, saxophonist, and everything-else-ist Kevin Hinshaw, the Circus Contraption Band is second to none.) Even the Moisture Festival, a Seattle version of the Country Fair, now has burlesque nights—something the hippie/second-wave feminists down in Oregon would've probably frowned upon.
Last week, Circus Contraption announced it will split up on May 31, at the end of its Show to End All Shows, after 10 years together. The Circus's last show has the melancholy air of a thing that knows its time is nigh. It has gilded its gutter-dandy lily with some 1970s glitz (white leather and rhinestones) and adopted a plot: The ringmaster is a snake-oil charlatan whose big-top empire comes apart at the seams, falling into a vapid, oversexualized heap of glitter and garbage. The Circus sings its final number, the apocalyptic celebration "It's Been Good to Know Ya," dressed as cockroaches.
Christian Jacobsen, of the Circus's board of directors, described the dissolution as a dandelion gone to seed: "On May 31, when we give it that one last blast of air, all those performers will go out into the Seattle arts community and start new things!" No doubt they will: Acrobat Evelyn Bittner (a tiny, infinitely malleable creature) and her hulking tumbling partner Jason Williams have already jumped ship. There's Lara Paxton, the shockingly strong and inventive aerialist (this show has her doing an innocent first-act routine as a mermaid swinging from an anchor and a second-act nasty stripper rope routine). Kari Podgorski, another aerialist and crowd favorite, calmly smiles while she flips and tumbles and twists around her cloud swing (a hanging, U-shaped rope). Sari Breznau, aka the Opera Diva, plays trumpet, tap dances, and sings with gale force. There's Matt Manges, the drummer and stunt man. And Drew Keriakades—the Circus's spirit animal—who will undoubtedly woo the Seattle music scene with his grinning, death's-head charm and mournful, mellifluous pipes. Here's hoping the Circus Contraption Band—which sits in the center of a complicated Venn diagram of jazz, blues, circus calliope, John Philip Sousa, Tom Waits, and Balkan wedding songs—continues to play around town.
I have waited almost 10 years too long to write my love letter to Circus Contraption—it had always been around, part of the atmosphere of Seattle's performance community, taken for granted. As with too many things, I didn't know how much I loved Circus Contraption until I realized it was going away.