SLAVA’S BLISSFULLY SLOW SHOW
by John Topping
published December 12, 2008
now playing on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater
through January 4
Slava’s Snowshow had a long Off Broadway run from 2004 to 2007
and is currently making its Broadway debut for a limited engagement during the holiday season.
It’s not a Christmas show – no Christ, no crosses, no Santa – nor is it really a holiday show per se, except that there is, indeed, snow, and
lots of it. Oh, no, no, not real manmade snow – if you want that, you need to see Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – but thousands and thousands and thousands of little rectangular strips of
white paper (sometimes called confetti). Hence, it is holiday-ish. Please, let’s not argue about this.
Who is Slava, and what is his Snow Show? Slava Polunin is a highly respected clown
from Russia whose life mission has been to take clowning out of circus exclusivity and broaden it to other horizons, such as the street or,
in this case, the theater. Press materials and Wikipedia say that he is often considered the
world’s greatest clown. I haven’t followed clowning enough to make such a judgment, but I must
say that he is the most confident clown I’ve ever seen, almost like a wise old grandfather clown, and he has incredible stage presence.
Although he is dressed in an oversized yellow jumpsuit, and the supporting cast of clowns are
dressed uniformly in lime green oversized jumpsuits, with hats that have flaps which stick out two feet in either direction, I suspect that
you would still be able to spot Slava if he were dressed like all of the others.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the snowshow is its almost
entire lack of freneticism. Much of it is almost casual clowning. Against a backdrop that consists of what looks like blue blankets with stars and a moon sewn on, as if in an
environment where dreams were stitched together with needle and thread, Slava and the other clowns takes small steps in huge shoes to make
their way across the stage. There are sometimes huge payoffs to the various antics, such as
covering the entire audience with a giant spider web-like substance, but it is amazing how often the payoffs are small. For example, two clowns wearing the elongated-flapped hats walk in their typical slowed-down way across the
stage from opposite directions and continue to the other side and offstage. The comic payoff is
that, when they pass each other, they turn their heads to the side so that their hats don’t collide. That requires a huge amount of patience by today’s standards, and Slava refuses to pick up the pace in order
to acquiesce to 21st century pacing. I don’t mean that as a negative comment.
There are some sections of the show that include run-of-the-mill clowning, such as when the clowns make their way into the
audience, whereupon some unfortunate spectators get doused with bottled water and others get their belongings tossed indiscriminately to
other parts of the theater. Most of the rest of the non-voluntary audience participation is
welcome and dazzling – most prominently, as you could probably guess, that you will not escape getting the snow thrown at and on you, either
by the clowns themselves, by other audience members, or when it showers down from the ceiling (unlike glitter, it brushes off
easily). And the finale is truly fantastic.
Is Slava’s Snowshow the most beautiful, the most elegant, the most dazzling show of its kind? It is all of those things, if not the pinnacle of them – like it or not, I would give that honor to
Cirque de Soleil (for which Slava performed in their production of Alegria). But
despite the dazzling aspects, Slava’s Snowshow is much more old-fashioned. It is
inspiring to see an entertainment that does not feel rushed, even knowing that the audience is going to be packed with kids. And, indeed, a lot of those kids in the audience are extremely restless … but not bored. It is almost like training kids to become acclimated to something thoroughly engaging that doesn’t move
at hyper-editing speed. And that is a better reason than any other I can think of to take
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com