Shock to the system It's the sideshow brought to the stage as Scott Baker acts out his dream of freaking out the audience with 'Geek Circus.'

November 08, 1997|By TAMARA IKENBERG | TAMARA IKENBERG,SUN STAFF

Scott Baker says he is a very, very legit actor.

Winnie McCroy, a very legit audience member, says Baker probably received too many dares as a child.

For the past two hours, McCroy has been watching Baker eat glass, fire and a handful of crickets, among other things.

"I'm basically here to shock you," the 49-year-old Baker says. "I'm here to freak you out.

"If I can't do it one way, I'll try with another."

It's all part of "Geek Circus," Baker's one-man shock sideshow with an intellectual twist. He's been performing shows akin to "Geek Circus" since 1989.

"It's sort of a mixture of theater, with the tradition of the French Grand Guignol blood theater, combined with performance art and carnival," Baker says. He adds social perspective to the traditional sideshow, exploring why we look and who we're looking at, and transforms it into a high-voltage spectacle.

But McCroy, a Baltimore resident who has come to the Theatre Project to see Baker, is still disturbed. "I just get weird when people eat stuff that shouldn't be in their stomachs."

A Tulsa, Okla., native, Baker lives in Manhattan and, the day before his show opened in Baltimore, was dressed in classic Village chic: black turtleneck and dressy jeans. His short, dark-brown hair is meticulously cropped and feathered. Vigorous gray eyes give the impression that he's seeing the vivid sideshow images he describes (two-headed babies, nimble midgets) in his head.

"Sometimes they would show elephants being electrocuted," he says, laughing hysterically. "There's some really nice stuff."

If you get the impression from time to time that Baker is reciting lines, it's probably because he is.

In an interview, he pulls answers and monologues directly from autobiographical and descriptive passages in "Geek Circus." For instance, his answer to what first got him hooked on magic comes from a vignette about receiving Gilbert's Mysto-Magic Deluxe set on his fifth Christmas. As he performs blockhead (the art of hammering nails into the skull) for an audience of one, he accompanies it with his rendition of "If I Had a Hammer," a highlight of the show.

But the rehearsed responses don't indicate a lack of character. Someone who broke attendance records at La Mama E.T.C. theater in New York with his freak show -- and elicited such a reaction from McCroy -- hardly lacks character.

"Every time a human is in an unfamiliar situation, people have to look," says Jim Rose, whose Jim Rose Circus is also an extension of the sideshow tradition. His popular show, which is currently touring, includes Mexican transvestite wrestling and chasing audience members around with a chain saw.

Apparently, there's an audience for the carnival culture that Baker calls "geek chic."

The Broadway musical "Sideshow," Rose's troupe, the Tokyo Shock Boys and MTV's show "Oddville," which Baker appears on regularly, are a few recent incarnations.

Baker and his contemporaries are drawing on a tradition that goes back as long as there have been traveling performers, according to Baltimore's James Taylor, the creator of Shocked and Amazed: On and Off the Midway, the only publication devoted to sideshows and carnival history. But the traditional "10-in-one" sideshow, with the barkers, rides and, of, course, freak shows, goes back to the mid-19th century.

Sideshows emerged from the melding of traveling circuses and popular museums, such as P.T. Barnum's American Museum in Manhattan. Such museums were called Cabinets of Curiosities.

At their peak, you could find sideshows anywhere in the country, Taylor says. There was a fair number up until the '70s, when they largely died out, because of both their expense and the masses of other entertainment options.

There are only a handful of near-traditional sideshows around today. The only 10-in-one left is on Coney Island. There is also Riverview Park in Chicago, and there are some remnants in Atlantic City.

Taylor, Baker and Rose agree that nostalgia and timing make this the perfect time for the re-emergence of the bizarre.

"The turn of the millennium is always full of this type of behavior," Taylor says. "It's a reaction to the very PC nature of the times."

But as times have changed, so have sideshows. Today, such entertainments are presented as full-length theatrical events, concert-tour attractions or performance art instead of as brief distractions on the midway.

A modern sideshow performer needs traditional "geek" skills plus style and narrative, according to Rose, 41. And a few laughs don't hurt. "If you don't do it with a lot of comedy, it's going to be a slow-moving party-trick night," Rose says.

"Geek Circus" has no problem adding substance to the sideshow.

"Scott knows how to do it up. He does it at a level where it's high art to watch it," Taylor says. "It's traditional theater slammed up against the sideshow."

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