It was mid-March, and the show at Natasha's Bistro & Bar was sold out. Waitresses wove in and out of the tables. A fog of ambient noise, quiet chatter and laughs settled in. All lights shined toward the stage. Then an eerie song began to play: staccato chimes, heavy bass, a melodic accordion. A performer made his way to center stage holding four small, shiny things.
It wasn't until he held one up to the light and then slowly — gracefully even — pushed it through his skin, all the way in and back out that people realized what it was: a 10-inch, 16-gauge metal skewer.
While the first one lingered above his biceps, he inserted another through the skin of his chest. Then, one pierced the stretchy, tender flesh of his cheek. The last skewer started in his mouth below his tongue, traveled through the void of his jawbone and exited under his chin. There was a little blood.
Eyes widened. Mouths gaped. Some in the audience twisted away. Some hid their eyes and peeked through their fingers. Some could not — and would not — turn away. Others stared, possibly trying to unravel the "illusion."
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There was no illusion. Zak Crouch really was puncturing his skin with skewers.
The human pincushion act is one that Crouch, 29, of Lexington has performed for only a few months as part of Tinderbox Circus Sideshow.
"This was an act I had seen done by several performers," Crouch, aka Captain Darron von Awesome, said. "When I decided to do it, I contacted those performers to get as much information as I could. It finally came down to just manning up the courage and doing it, discovering what I can do, what my body's limits are and pushing those limits."
Pushing the confines of normality is part of life in Tinderbox, which lovingly bills itself as "your friendly neighborhood carnies." The troupe describes its gigs as "a mad mix of everything icky in entertainment," but much of the performance is in the long tradition of vaudeville-style entertainment dating to the late 1800s. Gut-wrenching stunts, bawdy jokes and shenanigans are all part of the exhibition.
Spectators in five states have attended its shows during the past three years. The troupe even appeared on national television as part of last year's season of the NBC reality competition America's Got Talent (it was quickly eliminated).
Bed of nails
Tinderbox isn't the first modern-day sideshow in the Bluegrass.
Crouch, a professional body piercer at Bleed Blue Tattoo, started his circus career with Burning House Sideshow, a performance group linked to the outré Lexington band Ford Theatre Reunion. But in 2010, the band started phasing out the sideshow. Wanting to continue their performances, Crouch and his girlfriend, Kayti McCormick, aka Träshique D'Lamour, formed Tinderbox.
"I started teaching Kayti some acts, such as fire breathing, and from there we started booking shows with just ourselves," Crouch said. "Since Kayti was a part of Deadly Sins Burlesque, it went hand in hand that we would perform" with that group.
As time passed, Tinderbox welcomed more members to its team, and McCormick became "head adminatrix" of Deadly Sins. Behind the scenes, the troupes fused, sharing practices, bank accounts and some members.
"The group as a whole, with Tinderbox Circus Sideshow and Deadly Sins Burlesque, is, in the most loving wonderful way I can describe it, a big debaucherous family of dysfunctional weirdos," Crouch said. "We are absolutely the family you chose. Everyone of us has each others' backs. It is a giant mess of love and friendship."
In contrast to their ostentatious acts, Tinderbox performers find comfort in the spotlight.
"I have a fear of public speaking, believe it or not," said strongman Aaron Phelps, who performs as Bearly Legal Ben, the Circus Bear. The 32-year-old Richmond resident joined Tinderbox last year after his wife, Sarah Ellifritz, 27, started performing with Deadly Sins. "When I don the bear ears, all of that slips away and I want to ham it up," he said.
Contortionist Mason Reeves, 20, of Lexington joined Tinderbox a year ago after finding an ad on Craigslist for "Circus Freaks and Weird Talent." Twisting, dislocating, bending and crumpling his body through tennis and racketball rackets, he is worthy of the stage name Mason Doodle the Human Noodle.
"I think I'm more capable of connecting and communicating with an audience from the stage than I can with people in my ordinary life," Reeves said. "In a perfect show, we feed off each others' energy, and everyone walks away with a massive afterglow.
"I love how when I'm performing, I can forget about everything but what I'm doing right then. I feel like that's where I belong and there's no reason for me to worry about anything else."
"These troupes mean the world to me," said McCormick, 22. "I take pride in the fact that I am heading up two amazing and fantastic groups of people who share a common goal: to have fun. These troupes show me every gig exactly how far the human body can be pushed, how far performance art can be pushed, and they push us further and further each time.
"I'm constantly amazed."
Said Crouch: "We all feel the same way about getting onstage: It is just pure unadulterated love of what we do. We love to be onstage. We love to weird people out. We love to give people a spectacle that they're not going to forget, and the more we do it the more we want to do it."
IF YOU GO
Tinderbox Circus Sideshow
■ "Beard and Loathing" beard competition. May 10. Doors open at 5 p.m. Paddy Wagon Irish Pub, 150 E. Main St., Richmond. $5 cover, $5 to compete. (859) 625-1054. Thepaddywagonirishpub.com.
■ Benefit to raise money to buy the group a van. May 12. Doors open at 9 p.m., show at 10. Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St. $7. Bustersbb.com.
■ With Ford Theatre Reunion. July 6. Doors open at 8 p.m., show at 9. Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave. $7. Cosmic-charlies.com.