Make no mistake: The traditional elements of this sizzling summer funfest remain firmly in place. The sadistic emcee — here named Oscar, played by Jonathan Taylor, and styled as a theatrical impresario stumbling in his attempts to recover from the recent economic downturn — who prods his acts forward at any cost. A lightly prevailing silliness that suggests that you shouldn't bother getting too worked up about anything you see. And, perhaps most important, costumes for both the men and the women that are temporary at best and borderline nonexistent at worst. There's no question that you're being sold Cirque du Soleil–style frivolity with a little more sex. (Fine, a lot more.)
But what separates Empire from Absinthe, La Vie, and Désir, which played downtown in 2006, 2007, and 2008, is the oddly American spirit that suffuses all but the last quarter or so of its 90-minute running time. You aren't really supposed to pay too much attention to the Occupy Wall Street-style protest signs the performers are carrying, and probing too deeply for a particularly political meaning is missing the point anyway. (The pleasures Spiegelworld celebrates are those that cross every party line.) But the style has, for the most part, become less European and more homegrown in feel, which, for an outing like this one, is all to the good.
It's a different approach, after all, and one that very few evenings of this style have embraced. (Traces, still playing at the Union Square Theatre, is likely the highest-profile and most successful of them.) And it manifests itself in small ways that build up to an impact that's more bracing than you might expect. The casual bravura style with which three women (Anastasiia Gavrylenko, Anastasiia Permiakova, and Olena Lomaga) form increasingly elaborate pyramids, for example, displays a compelling sororal quality that's as innocent as it is erotic. The pas de deux for Oscar and his wife (Anne Goldmann) that rapidly descends into a food in which they launch banana pieces (and, eventually, completely chewed fruit) into each other's mouths, is unapologetic character comedy the likes of which is fairly rare in the Spiegel-verse. And how can you resist a saucy songstress (Lena Hall), who fills in-between moments with numbers as indefatigably New York as "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor"?
Even more than the previous Spiegelworld romps, this is pure burlesque-tinged vaudeville, in which the implicit sadness of its feather-light framing device ("This is the way the system is supposed to work," recites a narrator before one scene; "This is the way the system actually works" precedes another) provides context but stops short of content. And that's okay — even preferable. What, after all, can or should explain the spectacle of Oscar's wife dragging onstage a man from the audience specifically for the purpose of cuckolding her husband — who then gets his revenge by repeating her routine (dress and all) to the same, suddenly unwilling victim? The audience's enjoyment can be excuse enough in situations like these, and the message clearly being sent, that fun needn't always come with a price (or a lesson), is as American as apple pie. And, this time of year, as welcome as the ice cream on top.
Although the show never precisely falters, it does lose its focus toward the end as more familiar and conceptual bits replace the broader and bawdier ones. The balance artist Rigolo, who constructs an elaborately expansive mobile from which to hang a feather, and the smug Vladamir Malachkin, who stands atop a tower of chair as he expands it ever closer toward the ceiling are things we've seen before. They have a place in Spiegelworld, to be sure, but it's when they're at the forefront — and only then — that you're reminded that what you're watching was not actually conceived with the unique flavor and culture of the United States in mind.
But during its earlier and fresher scenes, everyone involved seems to have captured it nonetheless. Empire sparkles with a color and cleverness that force you to rethink everything you're seeing — even if you're a seasoned veteran of these kinds of shows and view it through a lens you may not have expected to need: your own. Oscar may be looking for the perfect place to rebuild his crumbled conglomerate, and if his future offerings are as good as this one, I'm perfectly happy to vote for him having found just the place in the Theatre District. He already fits in just fine.