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Slava's Snowshow

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

You won't want to avert your eyes, but you won't have much choice: The swirling miasma of snowflakes emanating from the stage of the Union Square Theatre - flying at you with the force of a jet engine behind them and backed by blinding lights - make it difficult to see much. Were it not for the lack of the pinching chill of winter air, you might swear you've walked into an actual blizzard.

Not that any of this is unexpected in Slava's Snowshow. From the moment you enter the theater, which is lit in blue and white and strewn with thousands of rectangular pieces of paper snow, you know exactly what you're in for. And while that climactic flurry is certainly impressive, it's most notable for not seeming to be the beginning, end, or even the central focus of the show, but rather one piece in a seductively entertaining and smile-inducing evening.

As the piece was created and staged by renowned Russian clown Slava Polunin, those smiles are themselves not unexpected. The white frowns and dour expressions worn by Polunin and the other twelve members of his cast - only a handful of whom appear in any given performance - serve as constant reminders of the deadly earnestness of what you're seeing. To everyone involved in the show, comedy is serious business.

Even so, they'll all do anything necessary to get a laugh: there's a lengthy exchange with a balloon on a ribbon, a spirited monologue delivered entirely through a mouth-operated noise maker, and even - during the first manic minutes of the second act - a scene where Slava's cohorts crawl out into (and in a number of cases onto) the audience with water bottle-equipped umbrellas and a strongly understated sense of comic abandon. Other moments, like turning household objects into a makeshift boat (which is, of course, attacked by a shark) or covering the entire auditorium in a giant spider web, seem almost sane in comparison.

These disparate elements are bound together by little more than Polunin, who plays something of a cosmic master of ceremonies, bedecked in a yellow and red jumpsuit. (His comrades wear considerably less festive - and almost pauper-like - earth tone-colored garments.) Polunin is always at the center of the action (and the eventual theater-engulfing blizzard, reacting to it all with the bemusement of a child experiencing the wonders of the world for the first time. That's the feeling he wants to communicate to us, as well, but he's not afraid to take his time getting there.

The show opens with a scene depicting depressive drudgery among snowy wastelands (real, adult life?), and closes with a triumphal experiment at bringing the audience and performers together in one noble goal: keeping the universe aloft. So what if the galaxy's planets are only spheres of varying colors and sizes, ranging from the size of a large beach ball to some nine or ten feet in diameter? The communal sense of play and love generated in that moment is reminiscent of, well, a group of children enjoying themselves outside in the snow.

That freedom is somewhat granted to you by the snowstorm, which occurs just a few minutes earlier, and truly deposits a fresh layer of the paper snow over the theater (and most of the audience). The design is credited to Victor Plotkinov and the lighting to Oleg Iline, but the visuals and special effects - which also include extensive use of a bubble machine during one scene - all seem to be spun from a single thread of childlike imagination that presents everything from a youthful, innocent perspective.

A few issues remain: At 90 minutes, and with a 20-minute intermission, the show seems exceedingly short, and some slack pacing makes it seem as if even that time is not being used to its fullest, and Rastyam Dubinnikov's sound design relies more on the volume control than anything else. For a show that's otherwise so earthy and oriented toward simpler pleasures, the blaring music proves far more a distraction than the show's blinding snowstorm centerpiece.

But even these imperfections can't completely cool off the experience. Even if you think of it as a Blue Man Group for the internationalist set, or a diversionary tactic to hold down the clowning fort until Bill Irwin gets another show going, Slava's Snowshow is a warm, winning entertainment that aims to bring out the child in everyone, and succeeds surprisingly well.


Slava's Snowshow
Running Time: 90 minutes with one 20-minute intermission
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street
Tickets online: Ticketmaster

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