Heart of the Beast brings back “Strombolli’s Medicine Show”

Daniel Polnau threatens to reinvent death itself in his revival of “Strombolli’s Medicine Show.”

Daniel Polnau leans towards the darker parts of sideshow antics in

Heart of the Beast/Jon Behm

Daniel Polnau leans towards the darker parts of sideshow antics in “Stromboli’s Medicine Show.”

Joe Kellen

Actor and director Daniel Polnau marched on stage, accompanied by his undead minions. He stared out into the audience with one hand wrapped around a microphone and the other on an apothecary bottle.

Sporting a wicked beard and a velvet red caravan of oddities, Polnau made sure you knew his name.

“Strombolli,” he said, elongating the name with a slow drawl.

The show is a strange mixture of creepy and ridiculous. This is Polnau’s third time producing “Strombolli’s Medicine Show: Sideshow Acts for a Post-Everything America” at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.

“We always try to have a baby, an old person, things that are non-human, too,” Polnau said. “We’ve had a pygmy pony, we’ve had dogs, snakes — my python died — we’ve had chickens. There’s a lot of new things in the show this year.”

And the caravan isn’t even fully unloaded — the show’s content will change as the run goes on. The general concept, however, hasn’t changed since Polnau’s creation premiered in 2011.

His character, the 1,000-year old Strombolli, has kept his performers alive by giving them a magical elixir. He won it from dark spirits ages ago — but this is the year that it finally runs out.

Throughout the entire piece, it’s easy to wonder whether Strombolli is telling you the truth. This may not be important, though. In classic sideshow fashion, the majority of the show is not centered on this loose narrative.

It’s all about the spectacle.

“I’m a burlesque performer and a sideshow performer; I work with fire,” performer Melissae Bletsian said. “I have a love for old, vaudevillian and sideshow art.”

Bletsian is only one member of the large cast. There are fire eaters, contortionists, demented clowns, mutant puppets, otherworldly demons — the list seems limitless.

“It’s a highly collaborative effort. Everyone who’s in the show brings their ideas to the drawing board, and Daniel works really hard to bring those ideas to the show,” Bletsian said.

Polnau said he thinks the group effort behind the show is what makes it interesting.

 “We like to mess with each other and have surprises for each other,” he said. “If you walked out and started messing with someone in a traditional play, you’d get killed.”

He refers to all of this as a callback to the weirder parts of vaudeville and freak shows. Through the relentlessly strange, he hopes to transport his audience to the birthplace of contemporary work.

“It’s a lot about going into the shadows of antiquity and the beginning of theater, these shamanic things,” Polnau said.

In the spirit of Strombolli, Polnau channeled the carnival barker inside to send a message to any readers itching to perform.

“Anyone reading this should contact Heart of the Beast if they would like to perform, because this is a cavalcade of curiosities and it’s a very strange variety show,” he said.

He’s serious. Polnau refers to the show as a living, breathing creature that always could use some new material. So, if you’ve got a crazy circus talent, maybe you ought to give Heart of the Beast a call.

“It must be seen to be believed; a description would be useless,” Polnau said. “But it’s guaranteed to raise gooseflesh and flame the senses.”


What: “Strombolli’s Medicine Show: Sideshow Acts for a Post-Everything America”
When: 8 p.m., Sept. 20-22 and 27-29
Where: In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 Lake St. E., Minneapolis
Cost: $10
Age: 17+