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With its variety-show format, the Dead Man's Carnival revives a theatrical genre presumed to have flatlined long ago.

It’s the first Friday of the month, and the lobby of the Miramar Theatre is packed. A middle-aged woman with a shock of purple hair sidles up to the bar, where an older man – a Mister Rogers lookalike – and a group of fresh-faced twenty-somethings are drinking beer. Like everyone else in the lobby, they’re waiting for the theater doors to open and for the Dead Man’s Carnival to begin.

Mustachioed magician, multi-instrumentalist and ringmaster Pinkerton Xyloma started the show in 2008 with a few friends, street performers with a penchant for turn-of-the century entertainment.

Now the carnival pitches its tent more or less monthly. And the performances – which include sideshow stunts, burlesque striptease, magic tricks and acrobatics – are as colorful and ever-changing as the audiences they attract. “We put on a couple of productions at Turner Hall,” Xyloma says, “and their staff told us that we pulled one of the widest demographics of any group they’ve seen. All income levels, ages, ethnic backgrounds.”

The show is a throwback to vaudeville acts that toured in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with stars like Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker and Harry Houdini in tow. But it’s also utterly of the moment.

The night I attended, burlesque performer Peachy Contour playfully thwarted expectations of what a striptease ought to entail – standing silhouetted behind a semi-translucent screen, she peeled off layer after layer of clothing and tossed it across the stage, revealing her underwear but concealing her face. And the Magnificents, the house band, channeled modern-day rockers like the gravel-voiced Tom Waits as often as they did the early American root musicians who played variety shows of old.

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Not all of the performers were equally adept. But their scrappy, DIY sensibility charmed even when their acts didn’t.

And maybe that’s why the show has captured, and kept, an audience. Xyloma, the Magnificents and the rest of the entertainers tap into an easy immediacy. I found myself imagining, while I watched, a slightly cooler (and definitely bolder) version of myself working up an act of my own. And I overheard other audience members talking about how they wanted to enroll in burlesque classes, or learn how to play an instrument, or juggle.

In an age when cars drive themselves and national policy decisions are made via Twitter, it can be strangely comforting to spend an evening watching a performer twirl across a stage with flaming hula hoops, and wonder what it might be like to thrill a room full of strangers with a century-old magic trick. ◆


The Dead Man’s Carnival takes to the Miramar stage again on Friday, Dec. 1, for its season finale, a Tom Waits tribute. The carnival also puts on a special encore performance on Dec. 30, also at the Miramar.


‘Staying Alive’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning November 27, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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