Somewhere in the middle of Scott Baker's queasy but fun one-man show, "Geek Circus," it occurred to me that this is not someone you'd want to invite over for dinner.
On the other hand, you wouldn't have to cook, because Baker would be perfectly happy eating the light bulbs, the fire in the fireplace and any insects that happened to be scurrying around.
Baker chomps away on all that and more -- razor blades, toilet paper, lit cigarettes -- in his post-Halloween sideshow-turned-theater production at the Theatre Project, prior to an engagement at New York's La Mama E.T.C.
With a musical called "Side Show" on Broadway, it should hardly seem surprising to find what Baker calls "the dark side of vaudeville" at the admittedly more offbeat Theatre Project.
But even the Theatre Project has probably never played host to a show in which a performer hammers a nail up his nostril while singing "If I Had a Hammer."
The song is key here. "Geek Circus" has two primary elements that lift it out of the genre of the freak show and into the seemingly loftier realm of legitimate theater.
The first of these is the humor Baker uses to comment on his self-described "depraved acts." "Last week I sneezed. I nearly killed a guy. No, I mean it. I nailed him," he says after pounding the nail up his nose. Or, introducing a card trick: "I have here a deck of 48 cards. I used to have 52, but I'm no longer dealing with a full deck."
The second theatrical element is the cast of characters Baker portrays in the course of the show. The creepiest of these come in a little scene in which he plays, among others, a carnival barker explaining how "geeks are made."
And make no mistake. By "geeks," he isn't referring to nerdy guys who wear pocket protectors, but to the classic definition of sideshow performers who bite the heads off live chickens. No live chickens, however, are used in this show, which, as Baker explains, has bowed to political correctness and substituted live crickets.
Not all of Baker's characters are equally successful. The weakest is a disgruntled postal worker, an easy cliche, though the character does do a whimsical bit with audience volunteers and toilet paper. And whimsy is a welcome addition to a show in which an actor, in the guise of part man/part octopus, lops off one of his fingers and then regenerates it.
Perhaps the biggest difference between "Geek Circus" and a bona fide sideshow is that Baker -- a veteran of sideshows as well as the theater -- puts a post-modern spin on his act. But the calmer and cheerier his commentary becomes, the more unnerving it renders his stunts.
And be warned. In the end, when Baker starts quoting "Hamlet," it's safe to say that the distasteful feat he performs onstage was never dreamt of in Shakespeare's philosophy.
' Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 23
Pub Date: 11/07/97