A hapless circus troupe tours the countryside of a downtrodden nation, trying to earn a living the best way they know — even though their best isn’t very good at all: a morose contortionist, a strongman who’d rather be miming, a lion tamer paired with an elderly dog, etc. Toward the end of a typically glum performance, Zloty Kornblatt, the troupe’s ringmaster, accidentally blunders into a mockery of the nation’s glorious leader. He doesn’t even know why the sparse crowd is laughing, but they are — and so he continues with the inadvertent satire, ending the show on a rare triumphant note.
The confused ringmaster is quickly captured, thrown into prison, and sentenced to death. The troupe must design an intricate prison-break built around their unique (and possibly useless) skills. Hijinks ensue, recounted with deadpan humor and flickering hope by Flora Bialy, Zloty’s understudy and our shy narrator.