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Slava's Snowshow

The Forecast is Fun

Russian clown Slava Polunin has all the requisite ingredients for theatrical magic: moon, wind, rainbow, and stars -- you can also throw in some cobwebs, mannequins, and a cavalcade of oddball clown friends for good measure. But be aware that Polunin's celebrated Slava's Snowshow is as capricious as the tricksters who have created it. In Polunin's own words, it is "a theatre of ritual magic and festive pageantry, constructed on the basis of images and movements, games and fantasies".

Slava's Snowshow, which is in the midst of a heavily lionized U.S. run, is an improvisational performance with a mélange of both tangible and intangible pleasures. The tangible pleasures include blustery dry ice snowstorms, enormous cobwebs chucked onto the audience, and a colorful platoon of balloons that bounce into the theatre like Zeppelins in their Easter best. The intangible pleasures include hopes, dreams, longing, loneliness, losses, and disillusionment. While the show has been hyped up as family fare, Slava mixes up the self-deprecating physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin with the almost feral aesthetic of Federico Fellini in a magical blend of tragedy, comedy, and farce unlike any run-of-the-mill hippodrome hijincks you're apt to see.

Polunin cuts an impressive figure with his perpetually befuddled expression, bulbous red nose (a purposeful vestige of the big top clown), and a banana yellow getup he practically swims in. Polunin and his weatherbeaten comrades -- many of whom approximate characters from The Wizard of Oz -- shuffle around woozily, alternately growing and shrinking in their clown suits, and glissading like nomads across the stage.

The first half of the show points directly to the aimlessness of these uncanny trickster figures. A frustrated clown enacts an imaginary conversation entirely on a whistle; accordion-playing mimes sway to the beat of an eerie Italian ballad; and Slava and his nemesis (a winsome, green-suited fellow with a floppy hat) go out to sea (in a particularly charming scene that brings to mind the epic bedtime lullaby "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"), surrounded by banks of fog and fin-clad clowns who slither around on their bellies.

The fare is tame enough, but what makes it so delightful is the self-awareness of the troupe. They pop onto and off the stage with the deliberate absurdity of children, intermittently interrupting the performance with attention-hungry antics and playing up the clown archetype with the utmost savoir faire. Even the most inconsequential moments of comic relief are sendups of classic humor that plunge spectators into the gleeful, protean world of physical comedy.

The show includes all the shenanigans you might expect: clowns climb onto chairs and assault the audience with huge spouts of water or the occasional purse snatching. But while the tone is buoyant, the themes of the show verge on somber. As Slava stumbles around the stage, his heart pierced with several arrows, the image of the "dying but not quite dead" clown is morbidly humorous (set to the symphonic melodrama of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez"), and nearly tragic. The show is infused with an ambivalent dichotomy: childhood nostalgia scooted uncomfortably up to the sense that we -- as well as the clowns -- are victims of life's cruel randomness.

The second half of the show is more Slava-centric, featuring Polunin in a series of silent soliloquies, sprinkled with episodic vignettes. Disconnected images of a child's rocking chair, or a woman who swishes ethereally across the stage in a wash of blue light connect to nostalgia of the most primal variety, in that these are images that seem very familiar to us, but we don't know exactly why.
The augured snow finally comes to us towards the end. Polunin mimics the heartache of leaving childhood behind in a particularly tender illusion with a coat rack, and emerges into a haze of train whistles and snow. He then delicately wheels along a host of miniature houses -- roofs tipped with snows and windows imbued with a firelight glow --in a literal reincarnation of Old World winters.

Snow, which Polunin associates with his rural Russian childhood, has a malleable quality in the show, seesawing between delicate filigrees, squally blizzards, and enormous barren fields of glacial loneliness. All three coalesce in the finale, which can only be described as an experiment in the sublime.

While no central narrative can really be dug up in Slava's Snowshow (and why should it if clowns are born ramblers?), it is the digressive parade of visuals that tantalizes. The show's most chilling sequence occurs when the massive shadows of clowns sweep across a darkened stage coated in a pea-soup thick fog. The clowns bear lanterns and are garbed with enormous wings, but it's unclear whether the setting is land or sky. And while their massive plumage suggests that they're angels, the shivery ivory tickles of a plaintive piano hints at more sinister beings, perhaps gargoyles. It is just one among a pageant of images that are both disturbing and mesmerizing, much like the fodder of childhood wonder, which toes a line between dream and nightmare. It is precisely this mysterious indeterminacy that takes Slava's Snowshow beyond cutesy family fare and into the transcendent realm of pure art.

Slava's Snowshow runs through May 7th
at Golden Gate Theatre