With its glitzy burlesque, stunning acrobatics, bawdy jokes, and graying audience, Absinthe, the latest offering at South Street Seaport’s Speigelworld tent, makes for a bizarre mish-mash of an extravaganza. If New York’s burgeoning downtown burlesque scene gained an advertising budget that allowed it to attract a Bridge and Tunnel crowd, or if Cirque du Soleil forsook its insistence on aesthete seriousness for a self-effacing sense of humor, the result might look something like Absinthe. But not quite. The contradictions that make up Absinthe – intimate grandeur, grotesque athleticism, upscale striptease – would be highly difficult to replicate under different circumstances. As it is, the set-up often feels strained: the Gazillionare, who plays filthy rich ring leader of the sketchy circus, and his sweetly off-kilter assistant Penny emcee the production while trying hard to elicit interaction from the audience, with no subject off limits. That the audience is mostly white is a source of much banter; that the audience would perhaps look more at home seeing a tepid spectacle a la Disney on Broadway is hinted at through a recurring slew of curious references to The Lion King.
About the most reminiscent absinthe gets of Disney’s family friendly fare, however, occurs in the number On Air (performed by Geneviève and Maxime of Duo Ssens), a romantic trapeze routine set to a recording of Can You Feel the Love Tonight – though their routine is more sensual than any rumored secret still embedded in a Disney movie. Other sexy acrobatic pairings include Strip, featuring Duo Sergio (Sergey Petrov and Sergey Dubovyk), who wear matching cotton briefs while performing acrobatic stunts; if the Big Apple Circus’ Huesca brothers embraced their homoeroticism, their work might look like this. A similarly breathtaking pairing, the misnomer Finale, occurs at the close of the first act, and features a fifties-esque roller routine by The Willers (“roller-skating acrobats” Jean-Pierre and Wanda Poissonnet).
It’s tempting to call Absinthe a cabaret, but, save for a few belted renditions of ballads sung by catsuit-clad Kaye Tuckerman, musical acts are few and far between; accompaniment is always canned. The presence of a band would enhance the show tremendously; watching the production, it’s hard not to long for one.
Instead, the emphasis of Absinthe is squarely on banter and bodies, both of which provide stunning entertainment. The terrifically weird Julie Atlas Muz is especially great in Moon River, a burlesque act involving an enormous rubbery bubble that manages to be reminiscent of both Glinda the Good Witch and a pregnancy ultrasound, but sexy. Really.
This year marks the traveling Spiegelworld’s third summer in New York, and its second featuring the Absinthe variety show. The performance runs an hour and forty-five minutes, and fans who want to make a full night of the event can pair the show with dinner and drinks at Speigelworld’s restaurant and bar (though be warned, pricey drinks match the steep tickets) or catch another production in the Spiegeltent, which houses several shows a night (some produced by Spiegelworld, others by local groups like the New York International Fringe Festival). For a decadent night of bawdy glamor, there is literally nothing like it.