After an absence of ten years, Slava’s Snowshow, that combination of sad clowns and winter scenic effects, has returned to Broadway in time for the Holiday Season. This wordless show is family entertainment, connecting with the child in all of us. It is rather sophisticated, more Samuel Beckett than Cirque du Soleil, so it may not be appropriate for the youngest members of the family unless they are seasoned theatergoers.
Created by Slava Polunin in 1993, the show has toured the world with various casts over the years. Set in a winter landscape, we are introduced to our hero, an elderly clown in a yellow suit, disheveled hair and red shoes. The through-line seems to be a series of journeys that he takes alone, and in tandem with a clown in a long green coat, red nose, oversized shoes, and a floppy hat that looks like the wings of a bird. They are joined by seven other clowns in green in various combinations and they mimic, tease and egg each other on.
Stunts are performed with rope, bubbles, umbrellas, wind, snow, confetti, and water bottles. In one episode in the first half, the two main clowns sail in on a boat made of a brass bed and encounter a clown sailing around them with a giant fin. In the second half, the yellow clown takes a train trip, and appears to become the train itself with a stove pipe hat pouring smoke. Other clowns pull miniature houses across the stage to suggest the changing landscape. Music plays throughout from Beethoven to Ravel’s “Bolero” and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” to recent songs sung in various languages. The double takes are priceless as are the sudden turns of fortune.
Among the more outré and unforgettable events are a giant spider’s web which entangles the yellow clown and then is pulled across the audience to entangle us. (Autistic children should probably avoid this scene.) After the intermission, the green clowns descend into the audience, and interact with us in all kinds of ways. Members of the audience are brought up to the stage. Among the most memorable skits are the telephone call with a soft red phone and soft yellow phone (think Claes Oldenburg) in which the yellow clown plays both the man and the woman on the other end of the two lines using a nonsense language to communicate. A scene in which he uses a coat rack as a second person and says goodbye in such a way that we see two people parting is most affecting. And of course, the promised blizzard at the end of the show (don’t worry, it is not cold) is an unforgettable experience. The audience also gets to toss around giant beach balls in various colors which will involve almost everyone as they fly in all directions and fill up the theater.
Little of the mise-en-scène is credited except for scenography by Slava Polunin and Viktor Plotnikov. The clowning at times resembles Marcel Marceau, at others, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. The rotating cast is made up of members of the company comprised of Polunin, Francesco Bifano, Spencer Chandler, Georgiy Deliyev, Alexandre Frish, Vanya Polunin, Robert Saralp, Nikolai Terentiev, Elena Ushakova, Aelita West, Bradford West, and Artem Zhimo, who appear at different performances. The youngest or the most diminutive has his (or her) own fun not following the orders of the others. From various descriptions, it appears that the show also varies on different nights, though all the main skits remain the same.
Slava’s Snowshow is a unique experience. It is clowning of a sophisticated sort with its wordless skits which takes it beyond language. Its set pieces are outrageous enough to transcend anything other clown shows are doing at present. At 110 minutes, it is just long enough to not overstay its welcome. The audience participation sequences will make you feel that you are part of the show and the clowns play off of audience reactions throughout. However, as the clowns are more somber than playful it may not be for people easily depressed or very young children who have not seen the magic of theater before.
Slava’s Snowshow (through January 5, 2020)
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212–239-6200 or visit http://www.slavaonbroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission