Todd Robbins, Little Jimmy, Gorilla Girl, and Robbins’s assistantShannon Morrow in Carnival Knowledge(Photo © Richey Fahey)
Todd Robbins, Little Jimmy, Gorilla Girl, and Robbins’s assistant
Shannon Morrow in Carnival Knowledge
(Photo © Richey Fahey)
To see what we had thought impossible performed before our very eyes and to question the veracity of what we perceive, doubting our own senses, is a major reason to attend attractions like the Coney Island Sideshow. That understanding of human nature underlies Carnival Knowledge, Todd Robbins' new show at the Soho Playhouse.

Robbins is a performer and producer/advocate for one of the last two remaining sideshows in the country, to be found at Coney Island. Carnival Knowledge brings the sideshow experience to the comfortable confines of a Manhattan theater, and the fun is infectious. With the help of the dwarf Little Jimmy (who was an Oompa-Loompa in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and Twistina (a lovely contortionist), Robbins delivers the sword-swallowing, fire-eating madness of the sideshow along with some comedy and lore.

Downstairs from the theater, there's a small midway that may be toured if one arrives early; it offers refreshments and such games as Pick the Duck or Spill the Milk. The raucous, high-spirited atmosphere of fun continues as the performance begins on the mainstage. Robbins stands before us doing a bally or ballyhoo, which the informative and colorful souvenir program tells us is meant to attract spectators to the sideshow. While Robbins acts as what the uninitiated would call a carnival barker, he lets us in on a secret: only non-insiders, or marks, would call that person anything but the "outside talker."

Throughout the evening, Robbins is an enthusiastic raconteur, sharing some of the history, lingo, and philosophy behind his profession. His deceptively "normal" looks and easy delivery allow him to draw in the audience, and add to the shock when he eats fire or walks on glass. The amazements don't stop there, and even those who have seen such stunts before will enjoy them in this presentation. For one thing, I still can't grasp how a large man can jump up and down on broken glass and not get cut. (The audience checked his feet for any padding.)

Robbins points out that the "freaks" of a sideshow -- those with physical irregularities, who are often viewed with pity by audiences -- are the royalty of the sideshow world and often own the productions in which they work. He manages to generate respect for the cultural history he represents, and his chairmanship of the board of Coney Island USA plus his role as Dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School make it clear that he's dedicated to perpetuating tradition. While he does not appear regularly in the Brooklyn attraction, only standing in when a regular needs a break, Robbins performs on college campuses and for corporations across the country, attempting to motivate audiences with visions of the apparently impossible made possible.

Carnival Knowledge is skillfully directed by Kirsten Sanderson. While Twistina and Little Jimmy are featured in several bits, this is virtually a one-man show, with Robbins swallowing swords and so on. Sanderson manages to maintain the production's momentum, adding comedy and exposition in suitable dollops, creating tremendous audience goodwill and prompting the willing interaction of spectators on several occasions.

The acts in the second half of the show are less involving than those in the first half; some rebalancing might be in order. But, overall, Carnival Knowledge is tremendous fun for kids of all ages. Like vaudeville -- another distinctly American art form -- the sideshow may eventually disappear altogether, but that will not be for any absence of effort on the part of Robbins and his dauntless collaborators.