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April 4, 2001
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Cirque du 'Cisco

WEDNESDAY NIGHT, ...Though we'd like to catch the rest of the night's performers, we have a date with Unkle Paul's Dark Kabaret at the Great American Music Hall.

Outside the gorgeous hall an elaborate, walking puppet and stage called El Diabolo greets Kabaret-goers, alternately heckling and breathing fire. A Joel Grey-alike in Coke-bottle glasses (there are three or four of them, all dressed identically) escorts us to our seats. The Eric McFadden Experience expertly lurches through some – uh – dark cabaret music, then promoter and MC Paul Nathan, a master (and some say "corporate") magician, begins the show. Bedecked with specs and metallic face paint, twisty golden horns and pointy ears protruding from his bald head, Nathan holds spark to torch as a bevy of cute cabaret girls strolls by, distracting him. A more detailed and androgynous Joel Grey-alike sings "Wilkommen" from Cabaret as the tight-assed girls around him preen and prance and cancan and bend over to pick up things in thongs and garters.

As the band reels into a circuslike extreme-sports instrumental, self-proclaimed confusionist Chris Karney executes some BMX tricks in a suit and tie. Kitty Kannibal the Man-Eating Animal, decked in Vaudevillian attire and dripping with rhinestones, sings a song about being a vamp ("half woman, half beast") and cuts up a sausage with an electric carving knife while laughing maniacally. Paul Nathan comes back onstage, eating sausage. The heckling comes fast and furious from the crowd for the majority of the show, as everyone in the audience longs in some way to be up there.

Cabaret-Goth children of the night mince across the dais, cinched up and short of breath, for the first of many Dark Garden corset shows of the evening. ("What's next, bloodletting?" my companion whispers, then heckles, "Bind her feet!") Master puppeteer Bob Hartmann, sardonic and childlike at the same time, conducts a beautiful you-can-do-it show with über-cute stuffed ants and plants. World-famous mime Jason McPherson performs silently as people heckle inappropriately, then swing-dances and gets in a fight with himself. Two expert tango dancers entangle and free themselves in hypnotic, controlled motions, and Nathan does some magic tricks and sets his shoe on fire.

Daniel Browning Smith (a.k.a. the Amazing Rubberboy) contorts himself in Chinese silk pants, folding and unfolding himself and threading his entire body through a toilet seat. Cara Vida, a tattooed, pissed-off, ball-gowned punk rock chanteuse, sings "Cry Me a River," altering the lyrics with vitriol and growling in vicious contralto. Sterling Johnson, a friendly, silver-haired bubblesmith in a black tie, blows bubbles miniature and gigantic using only his hands. We in the front rows take the round pieces of poster board he's given us before the show and fan the bubbles upward until the hall seems to be underwater.

After an intermission the band starts up again, and another magician balances a flaming wine bottle on his head and limbos to the floor. Because Reality Check TV is in the house, Daniel Browning Smith performs a rare trick, pushing his organs down and his rib cage up so that we can see his heart beating below his sternum, through the skin. Nathan does a boy magician fan dance; Dark Garden shows off more corsets; Nathan does card tricks on a blackjack table; more bad heckling ensues. Frank Olivier the Wayward Magician immolates his pet bird, and another woman lip-synchs badly and full-on strips to "Mein Herr" from Cabaret. What's next, a wet corset contest?

"I was having fun at this show till I realized that 50 percent of it is T&A," my companion says, begging to go. "I know it's supposed to be a Weimar-style cabaret, but if I wanted to see tits other than my own, I'd go next door." Just then Nathan sends a Reality Check lackey next door to the O'Farrell Theater with a $20 bill to bring back a barely robed topless dancer. She comes onstage a bit overwhelmed, and Nathan inserts the bill into her cleavage with his teeth. Chris Karney and Daniel Browning Smith race in a tandem trick, getting out of and climbing into straitjackets, respectively. Karney wins, throwing the prize stripper over his shoulder and strutting offstage. We leave with the newfound realization that even the greatest performers can fall prey to spring break mentality.

Thursday night, the Dubphonik sound system welcomes one of its original homies to its new hometown. Back in the day, Coop D'Ville and Jahyzer ran some hip-hop clubs in Miami with DJ Craze. The two moved to S.F. in '97, and Craze stayed behind to hone his craft and become a three-time DMC turntablist champion and, with the help of his crew the Allies, the most decorated DJ in history. Dubphonik – which also includes MC Jamalski, Zeph, and Raw B – lets Craze onto the Justice League stage to reunite and throw down.

Though the show isn't as crowded as it should be for this event, the crowd is hyped. After the Dubphonik boys trace some hip-hop history on the turntables, Craze, a diminutive sprite in a sideways baseball cap, commences kicking ass: first hard-hitting jungle, then old-school hip-hop, then just scratching. Using no headphones – which is kind of like playing a keyboard with the volume turned off – the turntable wizard creates complex beats and patterns from single notes and measures on single records, sounding more like a crew than a soloist. Hip-hop headz crowd around him, throwing hands up and shaking noggins in disbelief.

After the gymnastics another pounding drum 'n' bass set rattles all sternums from the front row to the back of the club. ("This music makes me feel the same as heavy metal," I explain to my hesitant rocker companion. "Pure aural assault.") Coop D'Ville plays original beats on an MPC 2000 on the side, and Craze cuts and scratches over it. Things fall silent for a minute, then Craze throws on Sister Nancy's dubby classic "Bam Bam," tweaking it for 15 seconds, then attacking it with some double-time jungle that brings the motherfucking house down. I get the feeling that that one segue is a dream come true for more people than just me.

Friday, the Great American is abuzz with circus freaks again for the Urban Hippodrome. This time, praying mantis people on tall, tall stilts prance back and forth in sequined costumes out front. One adventurous 15-foot soul does a cartwheel over a van, then halts a 38 Geary bus in the street to jump rope. The Urban Hippodrome, a benefit for Make-a-Circus, promises a G-rated alternative to the Dark Kabaret. At the door we're greeted with oversize Mardi Gras beads and a hoop-skirted bunny who gives out Easter eggs. Circus attire has been encouraged on the flyers, and party-goers have heartily obliged. Since it's a benefit, and the benefit circuit is how rich folks socialize, this gig is as much a strange mix of conservatives and freaks as the artAngels launch. (We overhear one khaki-and-button-down reveler shouting into his cell phone that his friends should come down because there are "lots of weird people here.")

Tim the Courtside Pianist pounds out some Beethoven and "Chariots of Fire" as revelers purchase their first rounds of drinks. Danger Ha Ha (the people on stilts in the front) performs a loosely choreographed dance routine to a batucada version of "Mnah Mnah," and a person in a stretchy black jumpsuit with no openings at all wallows and boings and tumbles like a noir Schmoo among the stilts. The troupe finishes, but an enchanting big-beat music mix continues, and the throngs are moved to dance before the party's even started. A hot-rod-flamed, latex-clad Peachy Puff puts down her cigarette tray, picks up a bullwhip, and cracks away.

Micaya and her Hip-Hop Dancers clear a spot on the floor and kick out the synchronized jams to Outkast's "B.O.B. (Bombs over Baghdad)," bouncing and throwing punches in sports jerseys, tennis shoes, and Pris-from-Blade Runner eye makeup. Attaboy and Burke and the Box of Crayons make with some off-kilter poetry over whitened hip-hop beats and Soul Coughing riffs, then the Animal Liberation Orchestra pumps out some funk jazz. We move to make the Flux Capacitor gig at King Street Garage, and upon arrival, the sold-out show, which set out to combine electronic music with aerial stunts, fire performances, and other circus acts, is hot and crowded. We stay long enough to see (parts of, over the shoulders of others) a kinetic, floor-based dance performance where black lights illuminate white polka dots on black costumes and the main dancer seems to be shooting electroluminescent wire out of her head and hands.

Claustrophobic and sated with all things circus and cabaret, we opt instead to cruise around the city in a borrowed convertible, getting some fries, smelling the springtime coming, and occasionally melodramatically woo-ing and shouting "Spring break!" We go to a party at an awe-inspiring live-work warehouse (complete metal workshop downstairs; one upstairs bedroom inspired by Superman's lair and made entirely from Lucite and steel; a rail-less and seemingly ramshackle three-story spiral "scarecase" for another bravehearted loft-dweller) and wonder aloud if performance, like rock 'n' roll or sports or whatever, will soon become a worldwide, viable, mainstream subculture all its own, or if San Francisco is just bursting at the seams with costume hounds, reality avoiders, and exhibitionists. Whichever. It's just good to be in a freak's paradise where the abnormal is normal and the normal is out of the question.

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