Before I got into the kid’s theater and puppetry racket, I was a fan of the darker, seedier underbelly of American entertainment found at the world famous Coney Island Sideshow.
But while most people gravitated to easy crowd-pleasing acts like the sword-swallowing Great Fredini or the fire-eating Queen of Kerosene, I found myself drawn — yes, inexplicably drawn — to the freak show’s bearded lady, Jennifer Miller.
My attraction was not physical — indeed, I have never relished kissing a hair-covered face, even back in my prep school days when such things were widely encouraged — yet it was all-encompassing.
Miller, you see, has an intoxicating stage presence — a presence sometimes wasted out by the sea.
You see, I was always of the opinion that she was shackled by the format of the 10-in-one sideshow. Her role there, of course, was, quite simply, to be a carnival freak. So for the most part, all she was asked to do was come onto the stage, remove a veil to reveal her thick, lush beard, remove another to offer a hint that she possessed working, womanly breasts, and recite a dull monologue about her life of ridicule, scorn and oppression.
While her performance was always entrancing, it saddened me to see a performer with such obvious gifts used in such an uninspiring way.
But good news is upon all of us fans of feminine facial hair! Miller has been positively reborn as the de facto leader of Circus Amok, the traveling carnival that performs in city parks throughout the summer.
While the more conservative among us may quibble with the left-leaning antics of the troupe — I mean, really, “A Short History of Racist Credit Exploitation” is not only a superficial treatment of our global economic crisis, but also not the best use of the troupe’s acrobatic talents — no one can complain about Miller’s effervescence.
Her evenly trimmed, thick black beard (did I mention gorgeous?) positively glistens with exhuberance.
From the opening number, a stilt-walking dance routine that featured Miller entirely in sequins, to her hapless knife-juggling act, to her role as Cybil Liberty of the singing and juggling troupe, the Liberty Sisters, all the way through to the grand finale (which featured Miller genuflecting before oversized busts of Buckminster Fuller, former Rep. Shirley Chisholm and Sylvester the King of Disco), Miller consistently commanded the eye.
She is only off stage for just a few minutes of the two-hour show, but when she is out of view, the other players positively suffocate from the lack of oxygen left on the floor.
True, the Circus’s “Sub-Prime Sublime!” show is a bit overwrought as it presents Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz” getting caught in a mortgage meltdown that leads her to seek out a particle accelator in Switzerland with Harry Potter, but Jennifer Miller’s performance is one of such gusto, verve and panache that I would have still fallen under her sway if she were merely reading from a history book (which, in some cases, she was).
The last performance of the Circus Amok season will be Wednesday, Sept. 24, 5 pm at Bedford Playground (Bedford Avenue and South Ninth Street in Williamsburg). Visit www.circusamok.org for info.
Trey Dooley has been covering puppetry and mime since the Kennedy Administration. His latest memoir, “Johnson’s Wooden Johnson,” is not available at Amazon.com.