Heels Over Head—a Physical Variety Show & a Refreshing Spectacle

Mr. T Puppeteer from Mr. Tannenbaum/ Bunraku Puppetry It was a night full of improv, clowning, circus, puppetry, satire, buffoonery and even a bit of burlesque at IO on Tuesday night. And the best thing is, it happens every month. It’s called Heels Over Head—A Physical Variety Show. Vaudeville may be over, but the spirit lives on in our culture. It is quintessentially American and it shaped our concept of entertainment as surely as Americans shaped its content. Echoes of vaudeville are still visible on TV shows like America’s Got Talent, and even sketch comedy shows like SNL. But every Chicagoan knows that the best variety show is the one whose roots are the grassiest. Especially when you consider that even the term vaudeville is said to be derived from the French term voix de ville (voice of the city). And so it is that Heels Over Head, as a modern take on the variety show, breathes new life in to old techniques like clowning, puppetry and mime, methods that have always captured the hearts and minds of the people. As for the name, host Brittany Anderson says “I wanted something that sounded familiar but invoked a physical image, like a handstand!” Brittany (physical theater and circus performer herself) hosts the evening as it unravels. She started Heels Over Head last fall in order “to give physical performers a place to generate and workshop new material and to mix the amazing artistic communities Chicago has to offer – dance, physical theater, clown, and circus – all in an improv theater, where they typically wouldn't perform.” So far, she says over 70 acts have been produced, three fourths of which were made specifically for the show. Every month the theme is different, and Brittany plays the host each time as a different character to support the theme. Heel1 Leana Savoie and Andrew Tardiff debate the issues that our nation faces. On this particular night, the theme was ‘The Bottom Line (Politics, Finance, and Other Stuff Only Grown Ups Care About)’ and so Brittany became Barb Turb—tax consultant extraordinaire. Barb introduced us to many grown-up Chicago performers, beginning with Kelly Nesheim and Altora DeLong who regaled us with "The Search" a partner acro act, followed by the hilarious improv group the Alterboyz who explored loneliness in a wedding dress shop quite well from the perspective of the mannequins. Then there was a skit by Mr. and Mrs. Wednesday Night (now on Tuesdays) a duo that has their own variety show regularly on (wait for it) Fridays at the Hideout. They got a little swanky and 70’s on the crowd before turning things over to Amanda Crockett’s Physical Comedy trio who took us all on a corporate training weekend of hell complete with trust falls in acro-clown mode. One of the most touching acts came from Mitch Salm & Natalja Aicardi, a physical theater duo who spoke the universal language of love and the actual language of Italian, expressing their character’s emotions so artfully merely by body language and a few words. Evelyn Tensions performed her comedic burlesque piece dressed as a proper Baroque period lady who soon busted out to a Madonna tune. Next up was Mr. Tannenbaum Puppetry performing "The Suitcase", a sad, sweet and too short tale of aging and loss of ability, complete with musical sound effects on live percussion and cello. The puppet had three handlers who did not attempt to hide behind curtains but who were instead an organic part of the presentation but strangely not as central as the wooden creature they emoted with. Heel3 Mr. & Mrs. Wednesday getting carried away. A clown/mime named Thomas Wynne took over the stage with an abstract and hilarious melding of audio clips and music. His hair and make-up askew and his energy grotesquely intense, Thomas rocked his act, the climax being the miming of the act of fellatio as it was painstakingly described by a recording of a woman on a talk show. After such an intense performance, it was nice to turn back to the realm of love, even if the subject was a lover’s quarrel by the hip-hop dance team Justin Kimball and Ashley Esper. This was followed by the finale act by physical theater duo Leana Savoie and Andrew Tardiff as they enumerated all of the ins -and-outs of election year strategies, their grotesque costuming barely an exaggeration of the actual candidates. They walked straight in to the audience with their podiums, shook hands, kissed babies, forced catch phrases, simplified issues, forced a volunteer audience puppet leader in to power and assassinated him, then turned my son in to the Statue of Liberty before it was all over. And the crowd ate it up, just like the rest of the show. You can see Heels Over Head on the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 8pm, at the new IO in the Mission theater at 1501 N. Kingsbury Street. Tickets are $12 and beverages and snacks are served right to your table as needed. The next show is "Heroes and Legends" on May 10th with  all new acts and performers.
Picture of the author
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.