Don't Get It Twisted
Haunted traveling circus shows Austin there's nothing to fear
There’s a mysterious circus tent at Barton Creek Square, and screams are drifting across the pavement. A chainsaw roars inside. The black-and-white-striped peaks are topped with red lights and a sign that reads, “Paranormal Cirque.”
This latest effort by Cirque Italia leans into the haunted vibes, suggesting freak show — especially thanks to the rated-R warnings plastered all over the website — but delivering dramatic set design and theatrical camp. It’ll be in Austin until January 16 before moving to four other Texas cities.
A chipper description by the show’s general manager, Benjamin Holland, encapsulates the tone of the show: “I'm also the contortionist with the show so, you know; I take all my bones out of place and then all the people scream and say, ‘Oh my God, no!’ And then I try and put them back, and everybody has a great time about it.”
The Cirque nails the look; it’s unbelievable that not just a circus, but an entire haunted house hits the road for just a couple of weeks or even a few days — and it looks stunning. It’s hard to tell if the floorboards creak on purpose, but that’s one reason a haunted circus is a perfectly natural thing. It’s also freezing inside (remember: it’s just a tent), and the show starts with a sinking siren that sounds like some countries’ emergency alert systems.
In order to get to the main seating, attendees are ushered through a maze densely populated by actors (presumably the circus performers in more concealing costumes), who love a chance to reach out and creepily stroke an arm or tickle a neck. Still, the most suspenseful part of my night was when I showed a staff member my seat number and they disappeared, sending someone with a folding chair.
I was the only person outside of regular seating — forming my own row on the circular runway the performers strutted on between acts — despite swathes of empty seats (not an empty house, by any means, but enough that I could have fit many other places). I waited, at first apprehensively, to be singled out for some embarrassing crowd work, which never happened. Maybe it was a prank. Maybe it was a welcoming, if ambiguous gesture to make sure the press invite had a clear view. In any case, I preferred just to watch, and the real audience participants seemed to have a good time.
Once the alarms sounded, the show itself was straightforward circus fare; just a little ruder, and in gothy, bloody costumes that felt better suited to an Austin audience than the more traditional aesthetic. Holland’s act was perhaps the best suited to the theme, beginning with a vaguely perverse walk around the audience on a leash, and containing some of the more unusual physical feats. The show’s impressive aerialists gave beautiful performances in menacing tones, and the show moved on to a slapstick clown gag, and a super-campy magic show.
For those who took the content warnings very seriously, there may have been a distinct lack of freak show elements; fire eating and sword swallowing, target practice, body suspension, etc. (Some videos of past performances do show different acts than the one in Austin so far, including a bow-and-arrow stunt.) Perhaps some viewers have proven especially fragile, but it seems more likely that the marketing is all just part of the theater.
“We actually put a motorcycle on a tightrope…and that's something people sometimes turn away [from], because that's pretty exhilarating,” says Holland. “We also have a lady who ties her hair, and then she is hanging just by her hair. She gets suspended all above the ring of the circus, swinging around in the air doing tricks. That one, if anything, is hard for me to watch, because I know her; she's a very nice lady.”
The show does deliver some wholesome if horror-based entertainment (with a fair amount of dry humping), good for casual dates and fans of the circus in all its forms. For those who frequent local comedy nights, this could be a fun way to shake up the routine.
“All the people are just normal people; nobody's actually scary,” says Holland. “The show ends and people leave. We just wait around and … get everything ready for the next people. But you know, people aren't really like that. I paint myself all with blood, and then I go around and I scream at people. [Then] the show's over and I go home, and I make dinner with my wife.”
After the Cirque leaves Austin for the rest of Texas, it is scheduled in Katy (January 19-29), Robstown (February 2-5), Mercedes (February 9-12), and Midland (February 23-March 5). Tickets ($10-50) are available at cirqueitalia.com.