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At the age of 14, Zigun grew disaffected with Orthodoxy when he attended Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal. “It was a mind-blowing experience,” he recalled. Thanks to Expo’s state-of-the-art science and cutting-edge technology, religion no longer had any traction for him. Prayer and praise didn’t make sense. Despite good relations with his family, gatherings became difficult when they centered on Jewish rituals and on synagogue attendance.
On the secular front, Zigun boasts a graduate degree in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama and is married to a pop musician from Lagos, Nigeria. And on the pagan front, three of his four limbs are covered with baroque swirls of color evoking on each “sleeve,” respectively, air, water and fire imagery. One leg remains bare, awaiting the tattoo artist’s needle for images of the earth.
“That will happen when I’m more grounded,” Zigun explained, deadpan.
Zigun has always had a flair for the theatrical. Early on in his career as the public relations director for the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, he forged a quirky persona for himself that included a vintage bathing suit and cool sunglasses “way before there was any such thing as the Coney Island hipster,” he said. “I knew that if I were interviewed on television in costume, I would create a visual image that was Coney Island. I became the Mayor of Coney Island in 1984, and since I don’t get a salary and it’s no real position, there’s no term limit, either.”
Instead of aspiring to a Broadway career, Zigun set his sights on Coney Island. “I had this crazy idea that Coney Island could be a staging ground for my whole dramaturgy. Circus freaks and popular culture themes existed even in my early plays. If I was working at The Public Theater or some loft in Manhattan’s SoHo, I’d be creating intellectual art — deconstructionist and metaphorical plays — about popular culture. I wanted to come to Coney Island and do popular culture.”
Sideshows by the Seashore is a marriage of traditional and experimental. Like its earlier incarnations, it’s literally a sideshow — off the main drag — with ongoing performances: sword swallowing, fire eating, snake charming. The requisite inside and outside talkers, popularly known as barkers, are also on hand.
But Zigun’s sideshow also embraces gender bending, women performers who speak (and are not simply seen) and entertainers who voice gay and lesbian, feminist or other political viewpoints. Freaks, born and self-made, strut their stuff, occasionally clad in black and sporting platform shoes as if they’ve stepped out of a 1980s goth nightspot.
Others who are less grunge in their appearance still emerge from a dark place, such as Baron von Geiger, who has had his tongue split as an example of “body modification.” Onstage, he shoots staples into himself and hangs fishhooks from his eyes, bearing chains and heavy weights. Rotating his head, he swings the fishhooks, weights and chains — dangling from his eyes — around in circles.