20 Penny Circus: Send in the clowns — and the nail guns

A cutting-edge variety act blends comedy, vaudeville, stunts and more at the Improv this Sunday.

In an era of mainstream-TV freaks and YouTubers knocking each other in the joybag for laughs, smart, well-crafted and theatrical sideshow entertainment has been kind of hard to find. Enter 20 Penny Circus, a couple of Floridian contemporary clowns whose unique balance of vaudeville, comedy, magic and potentially injurious stunts has been inducing thrills and winces in audiences for more than three years.

"It's entertainment for people with questionable tastes," says Tyler Sutter, one half of the duo. "That definitely fits."

Sutter, now a Gulfport resident, made his theatrical bones performing at the Universal Studios Magic Shop and doing solo shows on the side. His partner, Orlando's Carl Skenes, has been working the stage since the age of seven as a dancer, stunt performer, balloon artist and magician. When the two met, each recognized in the other a love for classic theater sideshow traditions as well as an ambition to do something new with them, and they were headlining shows around Florida as 20 Penny Circus by 2011.

The pair's first touring show inspired rave reviews all over the country; now, they've got a brand-new second act ready to go, and will be road-testing it for one night only for a hometown crowd this Sunday, January 25 at the Improv in Ybor City.

"I would say our first show was basically just two clowns trying to kill each other," says Sutter. "This show has more meaning to it, it has a theme, truth and reality and their relationship to trust and faith. 

"We definitely poke fun at the ideas and concepts ... it's definitely a comedy show in nature, we definitely make light of it. But I think the audience will enjoy it because we're talking about things that relate to them. We hope it will make them question their own reality a bit more."

For the new act, Sutter and Skenes collaborated with St. Pete writer and provocateur Casey Paquet, whom some readers will remember from back when stpetersblog.com was less a political site, and more a haven for inside jokes, man-about-town reports and snark. It was the first time 20 Penny Circus sought any outside input, and Sutter says the chemistry brought out the best in all involved.

"We bounce ideas off of our performer friends, but we've never actually brought somebody on," he says. "He loves magic and the old vaudeville stuff and he's a super-creative guy, he's the first time a third party was in on the creative side, and he did great."

In addition to new creative blood and a theme, Sutter and Skenes have also upped the ante when it comes to 20 Penny Circus's more, uh, make-you-squirm-in-your-seat-and-think-about-calling-for-an-ambulance gags.

"A lot of the new stunts are a lot more dangerous," says Sutter. "And a lot more painful, for sure."

20 Penny Circus performs one show only at the Improv Tampa in Ybor City this Sunday, Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. (doors at 7). Tickets are $10.

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