Slava Polunin and his Russian clowns are causing havoc on the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre through May 7th. Variety said it best: Slava's Snowshow is to clowning what Cirque du Soleil is to circus." This is an astounding one hour and 30 minute performance with a long and fun filled 20 minute intermission.
I have been a sucker for clowns ever since I was in grade school in Ohio. Every summer the Cole Brothers circus would come to our small town and the bigger and more elaborate Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to Dayton. I looked forward to both only because of the clowns. I became a "clown freak" as I would always wait for those funny guys to come into the tent and I would howl with laughter. Emmett Kelly, the famous American clown, became one of my most favorite comics. I discovered the European mimes like the Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau while growing up and I was always fascinated by their movement.
Slava's Snowshow is not so much a circus show but is more in line with commedia dell'arte performances, with dreamlike scenes similar to those found in some of Tim Burton's films. Many of the scenes are surreal as the clowns move in bizarre styles across a Beckett-like desolate set. Don't expect pratfalls or over-the-top American clown humor as these six clowns mix theatrical traditions of the great Stanislavsky. This shows the Eastern European irrationality of life that is constantly changing even to this day.
The Golden Gate Theatre is bathed in blue lights with lots of paper snowflkes laying about the aisles and seats. On the stage there are high monolithic blocks that are deep blue, quilts of stars in the sky, and splinters of the moon to make for an interesting backdrop. A crescendo of music that rocks the theatre seats opens the production. A lone clown (Slava Polunin), walking with a series of funny walks, goes slowly across the stage pulling a long rope. He looks like Emmett Kelley in a bright yellow suit with red hair, a clown nose and red furry slippers. He seems to shrink and grow in his oversize costume. You begin to be mesmerized as he slowly tugs on a long rope until another clown appears at the end of the rope. It's an unpretentious opening and most certainly low key for American audiences.
Slava's Snowshow lights up with four clowns in various comic outfits coming out to do a Russian folk dance that is lively and entertaining. A clown does an overly lengthy and somewhat boring exchange with a balloon on a ribbon and delivers a monologue entirely using a mouth-operated noise maker. However, after a slow start, things become frantic. The clowns exercise their authority in a good-natured fashion, blowing rainbow bubbles into the audience, and there is a great scene with Slava trying to sail a brass bed across the sky and trying to push a lethargic sun to rise. The short first act ends with a dense white fog spun from feathery-light thread coming into the audience. Members of the audience keep moving this slender cobweb to the very end of the theatre. It feels like cotton candy without being sticky.
The event has a long intermission; however, those coming back into the theatre discover the clowns are in the front rows of the orchestra causing hilarious mayhem for those unfortunate souls sitting there. They crawl all over the them, gently tweak them, and sit on their laps. They descend with umbrellas with water bottles on the tip that spray the audience in the front sections.
Slava's Snowshow's second act features a heartrending vision of a wonderful clown in a well-worn trench coat with a hat with bat wings walking about the stage. There is even the old shtick of a clown using a trench coat hanging on a rack and making it into a two person romantic performance. The end is a coup de theatre as the sound system produces the full, pulse-shaking sound of "O Fontuna" from Carmina Burana. The theatre goes dark and suddenly a battery of white floodlights hit the audience square in the face. Wind machines blow into the audience a blizzard of paper and fog, covering the theatre in white paper. It leaves you gasping at the effect. Five gigantic helium-filled beach balls come out from the stage into the auditorium and audience members turn into overgrown children batting these huge flying balls from aisle to aisle. It's party time at the Golden Gate and it goes on until they are ready to go home. I left after ten minutes of batting the ball around (in fact, the ball almost knocked me down twice; thank God an audience member caught me).
Slava's Snowshow runs at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street at 6th and Market, San Francisco through May 7th. Tickets are available on line at www.shnsf.com or through Ticketmaster 415-512-7770 or ticketmaster.com, all all Ticketmaster outlets and at the Orpheum Theatre box office at 1192 Market and 8th.
Coming attractions include Martin Short in Fame Becomes Me at the Curran Theatre from April 25 through May 21 and Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan at the Orpheum Theatre May 10 through May 21st