In 1907, a French temperance league known as the Croix Bleue called for a ban on the enchanting aperitif absinthe. The league circulated a petition that proclaimed, “Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, and menaces the future of the country.” Belgium outlawed the emerald decoction in 1906, Switzerland in 1910, and the U.S. in 1912. Happily that ban is apparently no longer enforced, as Absinthe, an intoxicating cabaret, has come ashore at the South Street Seaport. A cheeky display of circus, sideshow, and striptease, Absinthe is staged in the Spiegeltent, a traveling performance venue from the turn of the 20th century adorned with mirrors, dark wood, and colored glass.
Dr. Valentin Magnan, a director of the asylum of Sainte-Anne, described the physical effects of absinthe as “of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash.” The audience at a recent press performance was not quite so convulsed, though they did exhibit laughter, wild clapping, and some signs of arousal as the show played. Curated by Brett Haylock, who does a jet-lagged turn as emcee, the evening teems with sex, comedy, and not a few thrills. It’s a most international assemblage. The bowler-hatted English Gents perform brawny acrobatics. Ukraine’s Yulia Pikhtina hypnotically hula-hoops. In the most educational act, Ursula Martinez follows up a pert magic act with a very naughty Spanish lesson. Irish rose Camille O’Sullivan offers off-kilter torch songs, while prop comedienne Amy Saunders ensures that intermezzi don’t lag. And David O’Mer’s aerialist act, which occurs in and out of a bathtub, is rather gloriously all wet.
Much as we admire the poet Verlaine, we can hardly agree with his opinion of “this horrible drink . . . which governments should tax heavily if they do not suppress it altogether: absinthe!” Indeed, as Absinthe runs through the end of September, we hope to enjoy another round.