December 13, 2008

The Wonders of "Slava's Snowshow"

I hadn’t planned to write about Slava’s Snowshow. But I hadn’t planned to like it either.

Slava Polunin is a Russian-born clown who has created a show composed of a series of near-totally silent sketches that exist in a primary-colored wonderland. There are funny costumes and pratfalls that play out against recorded versions of songs like the theme from "Chariots of Fire". But like the very best clowns—Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in the movies, Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie for the Ringling Brothers’ circus, Bert Lahr’s Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—Slava concocts his comedy with a touch of tragedy.

At the beginning of the show, the main character, who is called Yellow in the Playbill, ostensibly because of the baggy banana-colored jumpsuit he wears, comes on with a rope, apparently intending to hang himself. But, of course, he doesn’t get the hang of how to do it. Instead, he falls in with a group of playmates decked out in long green coats, large thin feet and floppy-eared hats. There is no plot, they simply move from one funny bit to the next, at times pulling the audience into their shenanigans. (Click here to see excerpts from the show.)

I usually shudder when I hear the words “audience participation.” Which explains why I didn’t go down to the Union Square Theatre to see Slava’s Snowshow during its two-year run there. But the show, which has now played around the world and even won an Olivier Award in London, opened on Sunday for a four-week, holiday-season run at the Helen Hayes Theatre. So, off I went with my theatergoing buddy Bill and his good friend Rosemary. To my surprise and delight, the irresistible good cheer of Slava’s clown show melted even my priggish reserve.

Kids, of course, aren’t burdened with those kinds of inhibitions and they take to Slava’s Snowshow right away. Even before the performance starts, the aisles of the Helen Hayes are filled with bits of thin white paper that are there to simulate snowflakes. A serious-eyed little boy sitting across the aisle from us could hardly contain himself and kept jumping out of his seat to scoop up armfuls of the stuff and throw them into the air and sometimes at us.

Watching his sheer joy made me smile even more. For this is the kind of experience that can make a child believe that the theater is a magical place. What makes me frown, though, is that the experience is best appreciated if you sit in the orchestra and tickets for those seats, even for the tiniest tyke, cost a cool $111.50. Luckily, discounters like TheaterMania are offering cheaper tickets (click here to see TheaterMania's deal). Still, pricey but worth it if you want to turn a child into a theater lover in the future or to see the sense of wonder in his or her eye right now.

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