Scraps of fabric billow in the air as strings of sparkling white lights cast shadows over the audience, creating a blithe, mystical ambience. The ringleader abruptly ends this whimsical facade as he bellows into the microphone: “Don’t perform these stunts, you’ll fuck yourself up,” Alejandro DuBois says. “And please make a mother fucking donation to our mother fucking crew.”
It’s an oppressively humid night in Northern Liberties as the crowd, sitting cross-legged on the floor like impatient school children, goes silent. The eclectic gathering glows luminously in white inside the capacious belly of Bookspace, a used-bookstore recently prohibited by the fire marshal from hosting performances due to a lack of a special assembly permit.
The crowd stares as DuBois, the master of ceremonies, begins the show. Before his explicit caveat, DuBois enters the stage dancing furiously, his shoulder-length dreads whipping around like car-wash wipers, while donning a grotesque, French-style mask with a cartoonishly large nose. Ripping the gold mask from his face as if it were on fire, he begins: “Welcome to Phantasmagoria Circus, a show with freaks, geeks, wonders and human curiosities. It may even delight the most delicate sensibilities.”
The Phantasmagoria Circus Sideshow, a circus revival troupe, certainly never fails to delight. Yet they would certainly succeed in horrifying anyone remotely delicate.
Phantasmagoria, a New York-based group of circus performers who travel along the East Coast performing jaw-dropping (and often cringe-worthy) stunts and tricks, revive classic sideshow at Northern Liberties every First Friday. The troupe consists of three ardent circus enthusiasts: ‘Brother’ DuBois, 27, the ringmaster and fire-eater; ‘Reverend’ MacKenzie Moltov (who declines to give her age because she believes “all performers are ageless”), the sexy circus clown who performs burlesque, stilt-walks, fire-hula hoops and who lies on beds of nails; and Mariana Mystique, the 19-year-old aerial trapeze wonder. They also recruit a motley crew of seven to 10 other entertainers: Queen Yareli, the belly dancer; Jess Monte, a fellow aerial performer; Joe Lunchbox, the freak-show daredevil; Natiamos, a “natural born” with disfigured hands who performs fire manipulation and other stunts; and a collection of other madcap misfits.
On this evening, Bookspace’s sleepy literary graveyard comes alive as the crowd bounces around white balloons to the sounds of a DJ spinning dubstep beats. The noticeably tipsy audience members take one last swig from their alcohol-filled water bottles and forties as the troupe begins “White Night.” White Night is when the performers—and most audience members—wear white. In the calm hours prior to the show, DuBois explains that White Night symbolizes a light in these increasingly dark times, an ephemeral respite to remedy a darkness not only faced by society, but by the troupe on a deeply personal level.
“This will be the light show, the shining light in the darkness, because a lot of us are having problems right now. Friends are in the hospital … it’s just a really rough time,” DuBois says. “We’re just trying to make people take their minds off their lives for just that hour and a half, two hours that we’re onstage, and to witness something amazing and beautiful.”
The light show certainly begins lightheartedly, with the sparkling lights creating a soft, almost mystical ambience. But Phantasmagoria is never without its edge.
DuBois and Mystique founded the fledgling crew—Phantasmagoria is only five months old—in a spontaneous moment of happenstance. DuBois, a Brooklyn native, met Mystique, a Philly native, while working with another troupe in West Philly, and they began performing together wherever they could.
“The first time we performed together, we were at a park in West Philadelphia, and we had all these little kids just standing around—30 or 40 kids,” DuBois says. “And we just thought, wow, we have something good here. The next thing you know, we just put this together, and we knew enough people to make it a bigger show.”
After meeting Moltov (also a Philly area native) in Philadelphia, the three formed the perfect circus trifecta. They moved in together into a tiny one-room apartment in Brooklyn, where they are constantly collaborating with new ideas for Phantasmagoria themes and acts.
They group is self-taught, save for Mystique, who attends rigorous, painful aerial trapeze training for six to 12 hours daily. Moltov, resembling a graceful, adult version of Raggedy Ann, confirms that she is a “100 percent self-taught” performer.
“When you play with fire, you get burned,” Moltov says. “That’s kind of the way it works with sideshow. You usually just teach yourself. It takes a lot of guts, and you just really have to want to do it.”
On the business end, the group is also completely independent. They do all promotional legwork, planning and bookings by themselves. But Moltov clarifies that there is never one controlling monarch in the group.
“We’re a team,” Moltov says. “There’s no one leader. We all play such a strong role in the development of the show. Nothing is final until we all agree on it.”
Although hailing from different backgrounds, the three were lured by the mysterious siren song of the circus due to a common interest in the bizarre, the esoteric and the daring. Adjusting his feathered fedora that’s cocked to the side, DuBois recounts his childhood amazement watching his cousin, Serpentina, charm snakes in the renowned Coney Island Circus Sideshow, where he works 50 hours a week. He learned by mimicking the circus aficionados, and then perfected the craft through trial and error.
DuBois’ burning obsession with circus pyromania knows no limitations. Once the fire begins to burn, he is immersed in his own infernal universe. With eyes alight, he draws my attention to a noticeable scar spanning the length of his arm.
“You take a torch and you light your arm on fire and make a trail of fire,” he describes excitedly. “I get into these modes where I just don’t care. I just took it [the fire] fresh and put it on, and let it go out on my arm, just to see if I could do it. But when you get to that point, you’re not even there anymore.”
Moltov, the most outspoken member, shows the same passion for circus as DuBois, even in the face of excruciating pain. Similar to DuBois, she points to her legs, which are sprinkled up and down with tiny nicks: shadows of past pain from lying on a bed of nails.
Dear culture vultures: For months we scoured the city to bring you the best of what Philly has to offer this season, and we think we’ve done a damn good job of bringing something for everyone. Into art? You should know that curators and artists everywhere are doing their best to take art out of their galleries and into your community. Want theater? We found a scrappy, independent circus troupe whose stunts you should never try at home. There’s also a roundup of what’s on tap for our favorite stages. If comedy is your thing, we've got a list of the season's best events (like a tribute to the late Mitch Hedberg, he of the famous one-line zingers). Music? Check. Dance? The Russian ballet awaits you on. We even examine the state of storytelling, which, of course, is the world's oldest favorite pastime yet somehow a "novelty" in today's world. Enjoy all this and more!