To the calamitous blare of Orff's "Carmina Burana," Slava's Snowshow fell furiously on Broadway Dec. 7 at the Helen Hayes Theatre — not the bite-sized foam flakes that gently pelt crowds at the close of White Christmas but 70 million individually sliced scraps of paper flung in the face of the audience by high-speed wind machines and obscured by blinding bright lights. The effect, quite stunning, lasts a small eternity.
Instead of doing the easy and obvious thing of having the first-nighters over next door to one of the many felicitous rooms at Sardi's, the show's producers had them sample some authentic wind-chill, schlepping to the Zipper Tavern on West 37th St.
It was a cold and windy night, bitterly cold and not the sort of night you'd want your cabbie to overshoot the runway three blocks. (By all means, you must mention this to our photographer, Aubrey Reuben, who is still smarting from the experience.)
Frozen stiff, we arrived at the designated tavern, which didn't appear to be open for business at all. Rapping on the large glass door produced an annoyed lad with a clipboard who informed us we'd have to wait outside until the party began a half-hour hence. We, in turn, informed him of a few things, and he directed us to an entranceway next door at the Zipper Theatre, where a show was going on and we were rechanneled to a connecting passageway that brought us to the Zipper Tavern. It was deserted, save for some scurrying about on the sidelines by the staff. This was when we realized, having seen the show Off-Broadway (where it logged up 1,004 performances at the Union Square Theatre), that most of the first-nighters were still back at the theatre playing volley-ball with the gigantic balloons that were unleashed at the finale. Audience participation gets so intense they don't notice that Slava & Co. leave the stage, one by one, and slip away to their dressing rooms.
In time — tedious time — the tavern's large glass door periodically parted, admitting not only guests from time to time but also great gusts of cold night air. Most of the revelers saw fit to huddle at the back of the restaurant and keep their topcoats on.
It was a pretty low-voltage evening, with nary a flicker of star power.
The one who came closest to star-qualification was Daryl Glenn, who happened to be the date of a production aide. Who? you say. Daryl Glenn created and, with Jo Lynn Burks, performed an act at The Metropolitan Room, based on the terrific, cast-concocted song-score for Robert Altman's 1975 "Nashville." It will be reprised there Dec. 20 at 2:30 PM and Dec. 21 at 1:30 PM. Glenn invited Keith Carradine, who wrote the film's Oscar-winning Best Song ("I'm Easy"), but the actor had to pass since the show-times clashed with his Mindgame matinees at the SoHo Playhouse.
Randall Wreghitt, a name-brand producer (Grey Gardens and Little Women, for two), was present. His most recent production was his annual Christmas party held last week, on a school night, at his home in Union City, NJ. He, too, was feeling the pinch of star power — acutely, having passed up the premiere and party for the movie version of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, where Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis were promised.
Slava's five producers, of course, were early arrivals, omnipresent and ever-ready with quotes (save for the best known of the lot, indie actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was M.I.A. all evening or maintaining a low-to-no profile for the festivities).
"We just thought it would be a joy to the public, especially at this time of year, to bring some snow and cheer — something uplifting — to Broadway," piped up one producer, Judith Marinoff Cohn, but she had no idea how much paper was needed for the show. "The green stuff or the white stuff? I thought you meant money."
John Pinckard ducked the same paper question. He climbed aboard as producer after the show's two-year run downtown. "It's been around the world — London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami. At any given time there are two companies doing the show.
"It's such a fantastic little show, unlike anything else you can see on Broadway right now. It's high art — Slava Polunin is one of the living masters of Russian clown comedy — and it's populist enough that people who do not come to the theatre can come see this for a holiday entertainment and enjoy themselves. While the four-year-old next to me is going berserk for the snow effects, people are really appreciating the art and sophistication of the images and the visual storytelling — they're engaged at that level. It really is that delicious collision of art and commerce that Broadway kinda has to sit on. It's so accessible that it is truly engaging to all ages. The producer is always going to say it's a show for everyone, but this kinda is."
Polunin's artistry is apparent to all, miming through skit after skit, occasionally rising to gibberish vocal effects a la Chaplin in "Modern Times." Dressed in canary yellow and proudly parading a red-ball nose, he's of the Emmett Kelly sad-clown camp and can turn on a dime from comedy to pathos. In one skit, to the grandly overwrought strains of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," he staggers on stage with three arrows sticking out of him, and he carries his death throes into the audience, over seats, into the aisle, before returning center stage to kerplop with finality.
An armada of eight subsidiary slapstickers — done up in drab green, wearing wing-span hats and outsized shoes — had their own chaos going on in concert. They are not above making their own forays into the audience, flinging splashes of water willy-nilly everywhere. And they all wrap it up at intermission when Slava starts tugging a frayed flat that unravels into a huge web that engulfs the audience.
|photos by Aubrey Reuben|
The opening-night party at the Zipper Tavern was billed as "a cocktail reception," which is Russian for "no food." Wines flowed freely, as did the national drink of Russia, wodka. How many glasses of Grey Goose does it take for a clown to take off his makeup and put in a personal appearance? On second thought, don't ask. The reason it took The Great Man so long to arrive, it turns out, was because he was busy putting on a brand-new clown face. He finally showed up, flanked on the left by his wife (Elena Ushakova, who's a fish-packing clown in the show) and on the right by their son (Ivan Polunin, the leader of the green team and Slava's stringbean bottom banana).
"I have the best library on comedy in the world," crowed Polunin pere, through a translator. "Silent movies and commedia dell'arte and English music hall — all are influences for me. I have 82 movies by Charlie Chaplin, 120 movies by Laurel and Hardy, lots of Harry Langdon. All of the stars of silent films — I have them all."
Why did he opt for Broadway this time when he was such a success Off-Broadway previously? He was candid: "I got bored working every day Off-Broadway. I decided I'd only come here again for a special celebration, and that would be Broadway. "Every time I come, I bring snow with me," he hooted happily. And, yes, he confirmed that 70 million pieces of paper are consumed for every performance.
Polunin, who created his snowshow 15 years ago and has subsequently flung it at 25 different countries, does not always play the yellow fellow in the center ring. Whenever the mood hits him, he farms it out to Robert Saralp and Derek Scott.
"I did it this afternoon," Scott announced, sans translator. "I don't know the schedule next week, but sometimes we arrive and Slava just says, 'Today you make Yellow.' Otherwise, I play Green. It depends. It's very whimsical. Slava's very open. Sometimes, we play it as two yellows where we do different sections of the show."
Polunin caught the Ottawa-born actor in performance in Europe and immediately invited him into the company. "It was a very high-end kind of variety show, and I was doing a comic American character in a European show," Scott recalled. "Afterward, Slava saw me and said, 'Derek, I want you to come to Moscow for two weeks and perform with me.' I said, 'Okay.' No contract. No talk of money. No talk about accommodations. It was just like being 'I want you to come and perform with me in my home country.' And that was enough. The sincerity and the openness of the gift — it was just being invited into someone's home. All the details fell into place. We got tickets and visas and all that, but it was two human beings saying, 'I want to work with you.' Then, later, he said, 'Let's work some more.' It was as simple as that."
Scott can attest to how Polunin is revered back home in Mother Russia. "Slava kinda peaked when perestroika was happening, when Russia was starting to open up. Being freed from those constraints, people developed a fondness for Slava and his light spirit. His troupe ended up riding the waves of this bigger movement, in some ways like The Beatles did and Bob Dylan did and Andy Warhol did. Slava came to represent this movement. Today, in Russia, Slava Polunin is known by everyone."
And how old would he be? "No idea," said Scott. "He's ageless." It's the right answer.