My first experience of theater was a childhood visit to the circus, and I’ve adored its enchantment and danger ever since. New Age-y, animal-free Cirque Du Soleil leaves me with mixed feelings. All that moody artiness makes me miss the elephants. A circus can be more or less anything, including home to chariot races—but what to make of Spiegelworld’s 80-minute extravaganza, Absinthe? It’s an alternative, downtown circus for adults that’s a bizarre hybrid of carnival sideshow, variety acts, schlock comedy and a whiff of Weimar in the night.
At the end of Pier 17, beyond the dumpy shopping mall and food courts for tourists, there’s a sweet apparition by the East River. It’s Absinthe’s unusual home—a “spiegeltent” (Flemish for “tent of mirrors”). Dating from the late 19th century, spiegeltents were originally traveling dance halls (Marlene Dietrich is said to have sung “Falling in Love Again” in one in the 1930’s), and few of them survive today. Built by hand without nails, they were opulent, escapist worlds of teak, mirror, stained glass and billowing velvet drapes.
This one, with its Art Nouveau facade, might have seen better days. Absinthe’s tent exudes a smoky, faded glamour. Proximity to the performers is the thing: 350 wooden chairs surround its small circular stage. The spiegeltent is the closest I’ve ever sat to death-defying acts.
And what peculiar, extraordinary acts! There are two semi-erotic, apparently lesbian aerialists who astonish us on a trapeze without a safety net. I’ve seen great trapeze artists like these remind us of the very real danger they’re in by seeming, almost imperceptibly, to stumble, as if perfection were unexciting, predictable and safe. These suggestive aerialists are above tricks, however. They’re in a world of their own, icily perfect, indifferent to us.
There’s a young acrobat, a cool and brilliant triple-jointed performer, who enters dressed in silky pajamas, soulfully hugging a teddy bear. There’s a macho acrobatic wonder who enters pretending, for some mysterious reason, to be a boxer; a besotted girl sprays his rippling torso with water from a bucket before he wraps his wrists in bungee-jumping straps and zooms off into space like a rocket. Among other acts that are my cup of tea, there’s a somewhat heavy roller skater dressed as Elvis who joins his beautiful partner onstage as he happily sings “Return to Sender.”
There’s also another expert roller skater who keeps falling over. He was my favorite. The more Nate Cooper, a willowy postmodern clown, lost control—or worse, threatened to—the more we doubled up with laughter. As we know from the roller-skating musical Xanadu, it takes real talent to be this bad. But if skating disastrously were all there is to Mr. Cooper’s hilarious act, I wouldn’t be hailing him as some kind of mad genius.
First he roller-skates clumsily onstage, spinning furiously backward to defy gravity in a desperate effort not to topple into the audience. This continues haphazardly for a while until he fetches three balls from a violin case to juggle while roller-skating. The balls naturally fly all over the place, as he does. Whereupon, he decides to tap dance on his rollers, which he does surprisingly, charmingly well. Then, to our nervous delight, he fetches a few machete-size knives from his case and tries to juggle them while still balancing precariously on his skates. He wisely stops when they clatter to the floor.
In any case, he has something else in mind: He starts to undress. Underneath his suit, he’s dressed in a frock. Exchanging ludicrous platform heels for his roller skates, he puts on a fetching wig and now juggles the machete knives, expertly, while bouncing up and down maniacally on a pogo stick.
Can’t get that on Broadway.
Very honorable mention should go to the burlesque artiste who does surprising things with a giant balloon to the tune of “Moon River.” As the great song goes in Gypsy, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.” The wry and plumdumptious Julie Atlas Muz enters serenely through the audience wearing little more than a G-string, decorously holding onto an inflated balloon that’s as tall as she is.
Ms. Muz is a riot on first sight—but where, I wondered, could she possibly go with the balloon? “Étonnez moi!” was Diaghilev’s famous decree to his artists. Ms. Muz did just that.
As “Moon River” reached a romantic crescendo, she placed her head swiftly into the balloon, where it remained as our jaws dropped open and she swayed happily to the music. Then she climbed into the balloon—and waved to us all from inside!
Well, it was fantastic. And when “Moon River” ended, the balloon burst open—pop!—and the divine Ms. Muz emerged to relish our cheers.
AS FOR THE REST, I must warn you of the misguided attempt to replicate the decadence of pre-World War II Berlin cabaret. The three “hosts” of Absinthe are comedic oblivion: “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
A loud diva transvestite opens the show. But, frankly, I’ve had my fill of mediocre Dietrich and Garland impersonators in drag. The faux incompetence of a girlish character named Penny amounts only to staggering humorlessness and a foul mouth. The charitable thing to do with the sleazy Master of Ceremonies—known as The Gazillionaire—would be to give him the hook immediately.
I’ve waited for years to see the living embodiment of John Osborne’s mythic, failed entertainer Archie Rice. The Gazillionaire is he. Archie possesses no talent. He dies every night with no hope waiting for him in the wings. At least you feel for him. The Gazillionaire is as crudely low as it gets. His idea of knockabout comedy is to dry hump the air and aggressively pull some poor audience member’s head into his crotch. He sucks someone’s toes and thinks it’s hilarious. If you don’t applaud him, he calls you an asshole.
What a guy. Even so, he gets laughs from some. (So does sweaty, defeated Archie Rice.) But whenever he appears onstage, he practically stops the show in its tracks.
Absinthe is a small, schizophrenic circus that’s divided between comic cluelessness and wonder. But at least there’s my favorite loon on his pogo stick, juggling his machete knives dementedly, and my “Moon River” princess in her balloon. If there’s room I’d like to live in the balloon with her, and shout out to the coarse world, “Too beautiful! Too beautiful!”