Culture- ART FEATURE- Ix-travaganza: Wunderbar Wunderkammer

If strange words begin to recur in your life, take notice. This past winter artist Rosamond Casey recommended I read Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, in which the author discusses wunderkammern, or "cabinets of wonder," oddball collections of freakshow-ish miscellanea popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

So when I came across a postcard promoting "A Charlottesville Wunderkammer" last week, my nerves started to tingle. The card revealed the self-described "arts carnival extravaganza" to be a collaboration of the Performers Exchange Project, Zen Monkey Project, and Lunatic Carnival. Staged in the dilapidated Frank Ix Building, the show promised, among other things, fire dancing, installation art, and a beer garden. 

The brainchild of Martha Mendenhall (a.k.a. the Baroness Wunderkammer), the production is like performance art on acid, a tongue-in-cheek delirium of music, dance, visual art, and theater, offering a whiff of nostalgia and the stench of a seamy underbelly. Picture the classic horror film, Freaks, or HBO's Carnivale, mixed with a bit of Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub.

The overarching conceit is that the Family Wunderkammer (principal members played by Mendenhall, Jude Silveira, Siân Richards, Zap McConnell, Kelly East, Christian Breeden, Kara McLane Burke, and Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell) has arrived from Europe with a rotating array of sideshows orbiting their three headline acts. 

The mainstays of the Wunderkammer are Zelda and Lucia's Loony Bin Tragedy, Mendenhall's retelling of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's marital disaster acted out in a mental hospital (with copious amounts of flowers and sand!); "Wild Fires," a hypnotic fire dance choreographed by Kelly East; and "The Moonshiners Street Choir," an ever-changing band headed by wunderkind Christian Breeden, which provides music throughout the evening. 

The myriad sideshows vary nightly. When I attended, noteworthy acts included belly dancers, Himbo the Clown, and aerialists navigating ceiling-suspended tables and chairs. A tatty burlesque show takeoff (ba-da-bum) offered comic contrast to the more primally erotic "Wild Fires."

But the overlooked star of the Wunderkammer is the Ix Building itself. Its bare girders, pane-less windows, and murky vastness create a seedily atmospheric gallery. Among the numerous artworks created specifically for the show, Bill Bennett's kinetic sculptures stand out, along with Kristen Nyce's illuminated wooden-block moon, Christian Breeden's "Medium-Sized Dragon Head," and Russell Richards' gigantic 9' x 12' banner painting.

As you leave, look back at the Ix in the night– it will take your breath away. And your nerves will tingle at the memory of the Wunderkammer's artful curiosities.

"A Charlottesville Wunderkammer"plays Thursday-Sunday through August 6 at 8pm (Sharp! No admittance after 8!). Tickets are $15 in advance (available at Live Arts, which adds a $2 surcharge, so, in truth, they are $17), $20 at the gate, and Sundays are pay-what-you-can. Frank Ix Building, Monticello Ave. and 2nd Street. Info: