In Edgar Degas’s 1876 painting The Absinthe Drinker, now hanging in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, a woman sits before a glass of jade liqueur. With half-open eyes, her hat and blouse askew, she slumps, dissolute and narcotized. George Moore, a contemporary English critic, took one look at the painting and reportedly remarked, “What a slut!” A century later, if the Spiegeltent’s Absinthe offers any indication, the “green fairy” still produces similar, if more spirited, effects. A dose of wormwood causes dishabille and debauchery even in the unlikely environs of the South Street Seaport.
For a second year, producers Ross Mollison and Vallejo Gantner have graced that home of Pizzeria Uno and Abercrombie and Fitch with a beer garden and a Spiegeltent—an early-20th-century traveling festival tent, a little Big Top of teak, mirrors, and velvet. In addition to rock concerts and DJ sets, the tent’s programming also includes two circus-style cabaret shows: Absinthe and a curiosity from Montreal titled La Vie.
Absinthe, which debuted last summer, easily proves the more enjoyable of the two. Though it retains only one of last year’s acts—a nearly indescribable juggling/comedy routine involving knives, pogo sticks, and a really reprehensible wig—the lively and louche tone remains unaltered. This year, the juggler—a Brooklyn native—shares the stage with performers from Morocco, Belgium, Australia, Germany, English resort towns, and the Canadian wilds.
Like last year, several performers and at least one disembodied voice split the hosting duties. First, female impersonator Paul Capsis (pronounced “capsize”) appeared to introduce the proceedings and channel Marlene Dietrich—who’s rumored to have appeared in this very Spiegeltent. But he soon ceded the mic to the Gazillionaire and his Shirley Templeesque sidekick, Penny. This allegedly Armenian comedy duo practices a take-no-prisoners form of audience participation that includes kissing, fondling, and reading aloud from a critic’s notes. (Not mine, thankfully.) At one juncture, the Gazillionaire really put a foot in his mouth—a spectator’s foot, sans sock or shoe, leading Penny to demurely remark, “You just totally mouth-fucked that guy.” Though these antics grated, the pair later redeemed themselves with a unitarded Cirque de Soleil parody.
Alas, a Cirque de Soleil vibe did occasionally arise. Two aerialists and a contortionist curled and twirled very beautifully, but rather interchangeably. On the other hand, hometown favorite Julie Atlas Muz gave a singular performance. Nipples all aglitter, she merged sexy and silly in a pair of burlesque routines. And while the jaw-dropping physiques of last year’s charmers the English Gents did not make an appearance, strap acrobat Adil Rida and pajama-clad hand balancer Olaf Triebel provided ample masculine eye candy.
Hard acts to follow, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that the antics of the late show La Vie seemed rather tired by comparison. This absurdist vaudeville arrives from Montreal, created by the 7 Fingers. In a not altogether felicitous twist on the standard cabaret, the Fingers apply a narrative frame to their circus acts. Snippy host Sebastien Soldevila announces that we are all dead and have been transported to Purgatory. (Does he really want us to equate his show with suffering and torment?) The various performers then re-enact their earthly sins and atone for them via physical feats. Though easily as dazzling as the acts in Absinthe, the heavy-handed framing device renders them rather less fun—though Isabelle Chasse, playing a lunatic, does provide light comic relief when she uses her straitjacket as a jump rope.