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Child's Play 

The enduring charm of the Life Size Game of Mouse Trap and Circus Contraption

Wednesday, Aug 11 2004
The sound of distant applause and laughter rises on the wind, causing shallow wrinkles in the heavy silence hanging over the southeastern edge of Hunters Point. The wedge of a yellow-orange moon spreads slowly across the San Francisco Bay as strains of music and a silver-gray mouse skitter across the darkened street. The outline of a 16-foot rocking horse looms in the shadows -- silent, headless, vigilant, and oddly suggestive of the scene below. From a distance, the installation resembles a derelict carnival on the edge of the universe, but upon descending the steep grade of Earl Street one realizes the event is less like a carnival and more like a spectral cartoon: In the sallow glow of dim floodlights, a claw-foot bathtub hangs 12 feet in the air, a flight of crooked stairs spirals into nowhere, a colossal hand crank awaits a ham-size fist, a giant mallet threatens to fly through the air, a massive safe-deposit box dangles above an indicative X, and a clique of man-tall mice scurries among the mechanisms, the creatures wiggling their noses with fretful concern.

"It's inhuman to mice, don't you think?" squeals a large female mouse with buckteeth. "You can see that, can't you?"

"It's a crime!" hollers her male companion with a flick of his suspenders. "A crime, I tell you! We'll sue."

"You're all plague carriers," says a bystander dismissively. "It's about time someone took care of the mice problem in this town."

"About time is right," says another.

Since its first public exhibition (see "Samples," Music, April 3, 1996), the Life Size Game of Mouse Trap has become something of a San Francisco legend and a quixotic adventure for the man who built it: 37-year-old Mark Perez.

Fully embracing the principle set down by original Mouse Trap designer Rube Goldberg (the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, sculptor, and author from San Francisco whose "inventions" became synonymous with the idea of maximum effort put forth to achieve minimum results), Perez has devoted countless hours in pursuit of fun, frivolity, and the realization of a better Mouse Trap.

"I love it," says the former nurse and high school dropout who taught himself to weld. "Chain reactions, the transfer of energy, the whole thing. I want to take it on the road."

Perez once told me that the life-size version of his favorite childhood game "practically built itself." Eight years and four months later, I find him in a military tailcoat, wandering among the marvelously large structures, still making final adjustments. The result is impressive and ridiculous: a brightly painted industrial game board of bowling balls, counterweights, levers, chutes, ramps, and swinging apertures, as dangerous as an abandoned construction site and about 40 times as enticing.

"It'll work," he says with all the confidence of a mad character from some Jules Verne novel. "It'll work."

"Will it work, ladies and gentlemen?" shouts a well-dressed Haggis the Bookie, waving a briefcase.

"It'll never work!" shouts a heckler from the crowd gathered on the overlooking hillside.

"Care to put your money where your mouth is?" asks Haggis.

I put up a fin as the Reverend David Apocalypse emerges from a straitjacket dangling from a modified, stiff-legged derrick crane. Using a torch, Perez lights a towering propane-powered lamp connected to a giant boot. Lucky contestant Jay Brommel turns a double-spool crank, which releases the truck-spring-loaded hammer, which connects with the boot that kicks the bucket that drops the bowling ball onto the "crazy stairs," where it stops dead, on the second step.

"That has never happened before," says Perez, shaking his head.

Not to be let down, a wild-eyed, slightly drunk Mouse Trap supporter leaps onto the scaffolding, climbs up the stairs, and gives the ball an imperceptible nudge. As the crowd holds its collective breath, the sphere begins to roll, inch by inch, building only the slightest bit of momentum, until it lands in a metal basket and is suddenly, triumphantly, hurled through the air by a counterweighted arm, into a wooden gutter that drops the ball into a steel hand that shoots it into a 350-pound cast-iron bathtub, before it falls 12 feet into a bucket fastened on a seesaw that sends a deep-sea diver plunging into a puddle that releases the 2-ton safe from the top of the 30-foot crane, with a tremendous, ground-shaking, bone-rattling thu-rump!

The crowd erupts into thunderous applause.

"We're going to drop the piano next," promises Perez, his handsome face beaming as he points to a piano lying in the dirt just a short distance away.

Hiding their childlike glee, one group of educated onlookers immediately launches into discussions of physics, engineering, Milton Bradley, and the merits of cheese. The rest of us consider the probability of seeing another run before the cops arrive.

"There will be a live gunshot in this show!" warns the sign outside the Circus Contraption's Grand American Traveling Dime Museum.

"It's like being a kid again," chuckles Reno transplant Hannah Goetzl as she sinks into one of the couches arranged on the perimeter of the bordellolike set of Cell Space. The lights dim to a sepia hue, and the marvelous Circus Contraption Orchestra launches into a tango-laced melody led by a spindly-legged devil with a sousaphone.

"Step right up," cries David Crellin, the show's barker, co-founder, and musical director, as a coin-operated fortuneteller inside a glass cabinet is rolled onto the floor. "Don't be afraid."

The crystal ball glows with an unhealthy milky pallor as the fortuneteller's hands move mechanically over the orb. Then, with a slight shift, the woman lithely slips from her box and climbs up the soft single rope of a "Spanish web." Looping the cord around her body again and again, she rises to the rafters, then free-falls until she stops a few feet from the floor. To her right, a spotlight casts her shadow on the high white wall, imbuing the act with a quality as dreamy and dark as the music that accompanies it. Still, and despite the ease of the woman's movements, the proximity of the act allows the audience a glimpse of every muscle, tendon, and sinew -- a rare indulgence not afforded by large touring circuses -- which only amplifies the strength of the routine and the grace of the performer. When Lara Paxton returns to her glass box, frozen in the motorized role of Lady Fortuna, only the rise and fall of her chest belies the flesh behind the crystal ball.

Bunny LaMonte, a fast-talking boy from the Bronx with a passion for a newfangled conveyance called the Velocipede, breaks the mood, circling the globe with a side-splitting slide show of vintage copperplate photographs, featuring himself and certain aboriginals in awe of his cycling prowess. Of course, there's more to the story.

While Circus Contraption hails from Seattle, the Dime Museum was largely inspired by San Francisco's own Musée Mécanique, a collection of vintage mechanical amusements that has charmed and, in some cases, horrified generations of young S.F. children. Lady Fortuna and the great Velocipede race, as perpetrated by Matt Manges' LaMonte character, are examples of the Musée's nickelodeon-style treasures, but Circus Contraption reaches deeper into the age when reason and mystery danced.

With great finesse and greater theatrical timing, the troupe evokes the humor and wonder of the homunculus -- the miniature, fully formed individual believed by early biologists to be present in the sperm cell -- the caveman, the devil, and the dancing girl. Sari Breznau, a masterful comedienne and gifted vocalist, nearly steals the show with her tragic operetta about a knife thrower who sleeps with an elephant, but Jason Williams gives her a run for her bullion as the classic strong man who brings to acrobatics a drunken Buster Keaton flair. Evelyn Bittner is dark and chilling as the female gymnast stricken by catatonia; the winsome Kari Podgorski rides her cloud swing like the "Girl in the Moon." From the hat tricks to the tap dances to the live hurdy-gurdy tunes, everything about Dime Museum evokes an earlier time, and though they say this show is not for children, it makes you feel like one as few things (save, perhaps, for a Life Size Game of Mouse Trap) can.

Circus Contraption performs at Cell Space on Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 28, and on Sunday, Aug. 22. The Circus Contraption Orchestra performs every Monday in August at the Odeon. The Life Size Game of Mouse Trap continues to evolve and can be seen again in October at the Haunted Barn; for details, visit

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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