Diabolical pursuits

Diabolical pursuits

SOUTH RIVERDALE — Scott McClelland is a quintessential Jekyll-and-Hyde character. One minute, he’s soft-spoken and genial, with a welcoming smile. The next, he’s shooting this disgusted look right through you, feral revulsion running through his eyes.

It’s a suitable duality for the producer of Canada’s largest sideshow, Carnival Diablo, and McClelland dips deeper into his dark side as showtime draws near. On April 1 at The Opera House, Diablo marked its 13th anniversary, a special benchmark for the sort of man who keeps a stuffed, two-headed calf in his living room. Once McClelland takes the stage, he is Nikolai Diablo, an imposing ringmaster with a cartoonish leer, ashen face and a stark, black X stamped into his forehead.

The carnival has come a long way since its Calgary beginnings as an interactive document of the Victorian sideshows of old. Then, it was a stationary tourist attraction designed to venerate the success of his grandparents, two lovestruck Ukrainian immigrants who built one of Canada’s first sideshows. The Victorian decor is still a part of the performance but today’s Diablo represents a new phase in sideshow development. Where the Jim Rose Circus is a gaggle of foul-mouthed skids stapling dollar bills to their foreheads and the Brothers Grimm Sideshow is sadly sanitized, Carnival Diablo is a dark experience steeped in art and character, reinforced by eloquent scripts and a surreal stage presence.

The first half of the show is all Nikolai. Beneath the ornate arch festooning the stage, he starts with a game of Russian roulette: an audience member conceals a spike beneath one of a dozen paper bags and, reading the participant’s eyes, Nikolai flattens all but the menacing bag with his outstretched palm. He moves on to mind reading and a group seance and, by the time he eats razor blades and drinks boiling water, the audience is his under his hex.

The second half mixes the old with the new. There’s the traditional sideshow fare: strongman SINN bends iron bars in his mouth; Countess Vanessa eats bugs with a glass of red wine and burns off the calories with a barefoot stroll across broken glass; Istvan Betyar swallows a broadsword and bows from the waist. The modernity comes in the show’s climax, which leaves the audience stunned: Phillipe Barbosa hoists himself off the stage by two hooks pierced through the flesh of his back. Languid and lithe, he swings around like a ballerina’s nightmare, blood streaming from his wounds.

The Diablo spell lingers long after the curtain closes, as the audience files out to the suddenly strange universe of streetcars and bars along Queen East. PAUL CARLUCCI

PATH FINDING

PATH — “Inky pinky ponky, daddy bought a donkey,” counts off Matt Collins, founder of Manhunt Toronto. A group of 13 post-post-adolescents form a tight huddle in the outdoor walkway between the Union Station subway entrance and the GO train station. Collins continues rhyming, eager to send a new fugitive on his way and, eventually, select his seeker. It’s silly, childish, twee-tastic. It’s Manhunt.

The game is dubbed “regressive hide-and-seek” by its regular players, most of whom know each other from the 20hz.ca internet message board, and it happens every Thursday, weather permitting, in a different part of Toronto. Collins and his friends held the innaugural Manhunt last June, but this is the first full game of 2005 and the launch of a new season — the 20th game in the series.

This is how it works: participants are counted off one by one until only two players remain, and a game of Rock Paper Scissors determines the “manhunter.” After furnishing the “fugitives” with a 120-second head start, the manhunter scours a predetermined zone for his prey. If you find yourself caught by a hunter, you’re “brainwashed” and become a manhunter yourself. The game continues until everyone has been brainwashed, or until a time limit elapses, at which point fugitives who’ve eluded capture are declared the winners.

Tonight’s game boundary is the PATH, Toronto’s immense underground retail network, and many of the old hands express reservations about having to cover the approximately 27km of PATH’s shopping arcades. “Honestly, guys,” says Collins, “we’ve played in spaces that seemed too big and they turned out to be fine.” The notable exception raised by veteran players is the infamous Casa Loma game, where some fugitives literally wandered around for hours without being accosted by a single hunter.

While newbies are always welcome, there is a core of regular players that remains faithful to the schedule out of a sincere hankering for saga. Kat Gligorijevic-Collins, Matt’s wife and Manhunt’s unofficial historian, recounts plenty of stories of past Manhunts in places like the former Yorkville (see feature page 12) and the St. Clair Reservoir. Most of the best tales seem to involve run-ins with police officers.

Back in the dwindling selection circle, Kurt and I are the last two players standing, and we quickly devise our Rock Paper Scissors rules: best two out of three, following the popular one-two-three-shoot protocol, and the loser is “it.”

I throw scissors. I throw paper. I am the manhunter.

For a moment, an impious mind considers what would happen if I, the manhunter, simply walked away and went home. But the diehards who dedicate their Thursday nights to this wonderfully juvenile pursuit need their hunter. And it is, after all, Pistol Pete Thorne’s birthday.

Not wanting to disappoint a guy nicknamed Pistol, I descend into the PATH and play the game. Release the hounds. ANDREW BRAITHWAITE

DOING THE FAMINE

DUNDAS SQUARE — Close to 2,500 people huddle together before the stage craning their necks in unison while trying to catch a glimpse of the half-dozen Degrassi: The Next Generation cast members answering comedian Sen Cullen’s famine-related trivia. They’re trying not to think about food. They’re all here taking part in the latest high school craze: “doing the famine.”

It’s World Vision Canada’s free concert to kick off the 30-Hour Famine. Participants volunteer to go without solid food for 30 hours, taking pledges to raise money for famine relief. The crowd is about 25 per cent bigger than organizers expected, a fact Ontario and Atlantic Canada team leader Chris Judge attributes to growing interest in the Famine among youth.

Leanne Taylor and Adam Sposato, both 12, travelled from St. Noel Chabanel Catholic School in Wasaga Beach to check out the talent and mingle with fellow fasters. With philanthropic intentions in mind, Taylor and Sposato had no concerns about missing food. “We’re helping other people and we get to know how they feel,” says Taylor. “Plus, it seemed fun.”

McMaster University group organizer Arla Kasaj, 19, completed her 30-hour fast before she came to Toronto from Hamilton. This being her third year, she has experienced first-hand the mental and physical struggle the self-deprivation can introduce. A self-possessed outlook and rigid resolution help her stay focussed.

“At about the 20th hour, you start to think, ‘OK, I’m starving, I really need food.’ But you will it away. It’s not like you’re never going to eat again. You’re already [more than] halfway through at that point,” she says. “Plus, it’s a huge accomplishment.”

Last year, the 160,000 Canadian participants managed to raise nearly $4 million that went to countries like Malawi, India and Nicaragua to help reduce child hunger. Along with raising the goal this year to $5 million, Judge says there is special focus on HIV/AIDS caring and prevention, as well as proper water treatment in Senegal and Nigeria, with a portion of the remaining proceeds going to tsunami relief.

With an EMS unit on standby, plenty of water and orange juice and the supervision of vigilant group leaders and staff embedded in the dense crowd, Judge says potential health problems are covered. Indeed, if fasting is not a healthy option for willing participants, alternative famines — going without technology or speaking — are available.

Sixteen-year-old concert headliner Keisha Chant is availing herself of one of those options. “I’m cut off from all form of communication. No phone, no TV. Except there’s one on over there,” she giggles, pointing to the screen switched on at FLOW 93.5 FM’s Yonge Street headquarters, where she ducked in to do a quick interview. “It’s going pretty good though. It won’t feel long.”

The next night, three-time participant Matthew Lee, a 16-year-old Woburn Collegiate student from Scarborough, says he easily survived yet another bout of fasting and didn’t gorge on a three-course meal when it was over, choosing instead to nibble on a “large plate of Chinese rice.” He plans to sign up again next year, stressing that his hunger pains are minor compared to the kinship the famine allows him.

“I think by doing the famine, it gave me this feeling of human connectedness. That someone on the other side of the world is doing the famine too and we’re all working toward the same goal. I think it’s important to show we care, and as youth, we can band together to make a difference.” ANDREA MILLER

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