by Lucy Leitner
Before last year’s Atrocity exhibition, I was a bit apprehensive. Sure, it seemed cool and my friend Lita D’Vargas would be performing, but the event page also showed a guy hanging from hooks implanted in his skin. As someone who has trouble with National Geographic photos of African lip plates, I didn’t think this would be the event for me. I’ve fallen asleep during The Exorcist and laughed hysterically at A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Tod Browning’s Freaks gave me nightmares. So, the concept of a live, modern-day sideshow made me uncomfortable.
The specter of pinheads and those afflicted with Proteus Syndrome is not necessarily a rational fear. More people may actually have Proteus Syndrome than this worry. However, I saw the suspension act and extrapolated terrifying sideshow from there.
Instead, when I attended the annual show at the Rex Theater, I found that it featured a burlesque performance with tentacles and current RuPaul’s Drag Race finalist Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 running around mostly naked in a chicken mask.
It turned out to be my kind of event.
“It’s a gathering of talented weirdos,” said event organizer and sideshow/burlesque performer Macabre Noir.
Many assumptions about Atrocity are probably wrong. This Saturday’s event is not a freak show. Yes, it is a spectacle and this year’s theme of Commedia Dell’Morte Carnivale denotes a circus atmosphere. This is accurate. But it’s not a sideshow. It’s a combination of the main stage of early 20th century circus performances and the Renaissance-era Italian masked theater commedia dell’arte.
Some artists are billed as “drag guignols.” The music will be Bat Cave. There will be ballyhoo entertainment.
I can tell you how to say “end mill” in at least five different languages (and explain what an end mill is and how it can be as genocidal to nickel-chromium alloys as Pol Pot), but I don’t know what any of those words mean. You could ask Siri to tell you what they are, but attending Atrocity guarantees that you’ll see more nipple tassles. Siri doesn’t wear those. Prude.
Carnivale is a celebration of several nearly lost forms of entertainment, a Rosetta Stone for people like me who are not well-versed in strange, dark, yet comical theatrical stage spectacles in the many eras B.A.C. (Before Alice Cooper).
And it has a story. That you can read on the Atrocity web site.
The Atrocity show is different from goth nights and fetish events that pop up in town with some regularity. This is an almost academic fusion of the old and the new, an appreciation of influences that made each performer who they are. With booze.
And a concession stand. With popcorn and black and white lollipops. And a sense of humor. Drag queen Cherry Baum will host the event with a comical flair as a circus ringmaster.
Penny Delapoison will perform a sideshow/burlesque number. Her narrative performance last year to The Dresden Dolls’ “Missed Me” — the sweetest song about pedophilia second only to Faith No More’s “Edge of the World” — got me hooked on Amanda Palmer’s entire catalog.
Countess Von Tella, billed as a “notorious bizarre performance artist” will likely do just that. Last year’s number involved what appeared to be the top of Bib Fortuna’s head. It was highly cool.
Lita D’Vargas will perform a show-long burlesque striptease between acts. “Lita can tell a story,” Macabre said. “If I give her the lyrics, she can figure out how to take her clothes off to it in a day. She’s a professional and has a passion for what she does.”
“Pain-proof man” Gypsy’s promotional photo depicts him lying on nails. He’s a founding member of Kabarett Vulgare, the performance artist troupe from which most of the local acts hail.
Legendary Pittsburgh jazz chanteuse Phat Man Dee will provide a surely striking vocal performance with much more than a hint of bizarre.
Flesh suspension artist Reverend Decay, from Frederick, MD, will do something interesting that is apparently not flesh suspension this year.
New Orleans-based Vinsantos will contribute a vocal and piano performance while Cherry Von Bomb will come to town from Charlotte, NC for a burlesque/sideshow act.
“Pittsburgh’s premier pain-proof clown and performance arsonist” (according to his Facebook page), Andrew the Impaled will lend his strange sensibilities to the evening. Drag/burlesque/sideshow performer Lilith DeVille will also be featured.
The floor of the Rex will be filled with vendors peddling the art darker than anything that requires training to defend oneself against.
The preparation for the next Atrocity starts as soon as the previous one ends. After about six months of planning the aesthetic, theme, and story, and booking performers, Macabre and her artistic partner Dr. Morose (the two also run the House of Oddities) begin promotions with a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to bring in out-of-state entertainers.
“We don’t do it for money. It’s just an excuse to get together, make stuff, be weird, and do something cool,” Macabre said.
This arduous preparation process, the “weirdo exchange program of foster homes” to house the out-of-towners, the behind-the-scenes intrigue — it’s all fodder for a movie.
Brian Cottington of Daggervision Films has been chronicling the event for a documentary that he plans to premiere in the fall. As of this writing, he’s filmed interviews with most of the Pittsburgh-based acts and plans to capture the out-of-towners as they filter in Friday.
“For me the main purpose of the documentary is to illustrate two very real points. One, that there is this massive underground event that occurs each year filled with some of the most bizarre acts you can find in Pittsburgh,” Cottington said. “The second, and arguably more important point, is that these individuals, despite their outward appearance and weird talents, are deep down as human and normal as everyone else. These people have morals, values, families, and friends.”
He’ll have three cameras at the show to get footage of the acts and capture audience reaction.
“When the entertainers are happy, the audience is happy, everyone is happy,” Macabre said.
While the event so scholarly in so many regards, it set the record for booze sales at the legendary Rex. It is a simultaneous homage to and update of performance art forms of the past.
It’s not what you’d expect.
It has lofty ambitions.
Learn more about Atrocity on Facebook.