The Siegel Column

3½ Stars: Absinthe

Located near the river at the far end of the South Street Seaport, the Spiegeltent houses a wide array of offbeat acts through October 1st. But then you probably know that by now. However, you may not be aware that there are special guest acts that rotate in and out of Absinthe, which is one of the major attractions in the tent. If you saw Absinthe early in its run, you will see a somewhat different show now. Unfortunately, no matter when you go you're going to get stuck with seeing the same hideously over-the-top chanteuse named Camille. She is the very worst interpreter of Jacques Brel we have ever seen. In that sense, she kind of fits in with the sado-masochistic circus that is Absinthe. Except everyone else in the show ranges from good to amazing. Nonetheless, it's all very dark and strange stuff ...

The darkest and strangest and most amazing was the guest star we caught at a recent show. Call him "Rubber Man." Between his patter and his insanely double-jointed body, we were witness to some awfully funny material, with the emphasis on awful. This guy is where horrifying and hilarious overlap. There was a juggler on roller skates who was every bit as funny as Chaplin on roller skates in Modern Times. There's a wild woman clown whose sense of humor is diabolical. And there is a British muscle duo wearing bowlers and suits that could play Cirque du Soleil tomorrow if they weren't so dicey.

There are a couple of mediocre acts as well, but the vast majority of them are surprisingly sensational. Seeing them up close in the modest-sized, single-ring spiegeltent makes all of these acts remarkably intimate. If you're sense of humor runs to the macabre, Absinthe is your red and bloody meat.

4½ Stars The Asylum Street Spankers

The night we saw Absinthe it was miserable and stormy outside the Spiegeltent. In a generous gesture by the management, the entire audience was invited to stay for free to see the next show at midnight. We can't speak for the rest of the crowd, but we were sure glad we hung around. An utterly nutty country western band from Austin, Texas called The Asylum Street Spankers knocked us out with their stunning combination of musicianship and spot-on satire. They mocked just as much as they charmed, and they played as well as they sang. What a find! They have since flown off to Japan but we include them here because these guys (and one woman) need to play in New York City again sometime soon.

3 Stars: Side Show

Putting up a full scale version of the cult favorite musical Side Show with two dozen actors for a five performance run is a sort of admirably insane thing to do. Producer/director Ryan Mekenian is the fellow who put it together, and all of us Side Show fanatics could not be more pleased that he did. He proved for these critics, once and for all, that the book by Bill Russell and the score by Russell (lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) are, indeed, worthy of their cult status. The original Broadway production had a stupendous cast from top to bottom and great performers can mask a mediocre show. But mediocre performers can, by the same token, reveal the greatness of a show when we see that they are being carried by the power of the material and not vice versa.

Don't get us wrong; we're not putting down the recent production of Side Show at the American Actors Theater. In fact, we were largely impressed with what Mekenian was able to pull off under the circumstances. And it's no dig at the cast to say that these young, relatively inexperienced performers were not at the level of Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Jeff McCarthy, Hugh Panaro, and Norm Lewis. In fact, we were rather taken by Carey McCray who played Daisy Hilton (the Alice Ripley role) and by Joshua Isaacs who played Buddy (the Hugh Panaro role). If there was one other thing about the production that pleased us, it was the fact that the theater was packed. The cult continues. And someday, if not a revival, could we at least get a major production at Encores?

Barbara and Scott Siegel