’Tis the season of magical, wordless spectacles (see accompanying review on Edward Scissorhands). You have to go to Vegas to see the pyrotechnics of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil. But here at UCLA’s Royce Hall, you can see Russian clown Slava Polunin’s extravaganza, Snowshow. Both Canada and Russia may have frigid winters that worm their way into the souls of their people, but the similarities between Cirque and Slava end there.
Where Cirque du Soleil tilts its tone toward redemption and optimism, Snowshow’s aesthetic lies somewhere between a wild drinking party and the hangover that follows. Where the Cirque’s sets are sculpted with special laser effects and svelte, glitter-laden trapeze artists, Polunin’s ensemble of clowns, with red-bulb noses, sport yellow or green overalls so baggy and forlorn, they look like the inmates on roadside cleanup duty.
The stage is framed by a series of panels that resemble huge night-sky-blue blankets with stars sewn in. The texture is as thick and soft as a coat’s lining, or a padded cell. A pair of prop telephones and harmonicas also have a cushiony texture, further upending our reality: What we expect to be solid is actually just a little bit pliable. Alexander Pechersky’s side lighting transforms UCLA’s normally elegant Royce Hall into a huge warehouse for a sideshow or a rave. When you walk in, the theater is strewn with tiny squares of shredded confetti. During the show, more confetti gently flutters down from the rafters and later comes at the audiences horizontally as a vicious avalanche in a blinding light accompanied by deafening music. After this, helium-aided beach balls saturate the sky, forcing the audience to bounce them back into the air or be struck. This show won’t allow you to just watch life float by.
While the intermission is still in progress, the clowns are scampering over the theater’s seats and harassing patrons by demanding their coats and/or tugging them loose from their owners. One young woman found herself on her back with her shoes removed while a clown jammed confetti between her toes. She was somewhat blithe about the assault, others were angry.
An older woman really wanted her coat back. “This is terrible,” she complained. “Why did they do that?”
Later, back on the stage, the lead clown (Polunin) removes a coat from an oversize suitcase, places it on a standing hanger and, by slipping one of his arms into the arm of the coat, animates it. The coat transforms into a lover who caresses his neck with a dustpan brush. In this way, the performance slides through a series of images that add up to a philosophy more than a story. Beneath the sentimentality and mayhem, Rastyam Dubinnikov’s soundscape melds the sounds of a steam train leaving the station into the distant echoes of a calliope, so that you’re in a madhouse that’s both aggressive, poetic, funny, dangerous, and as forlorn as a Russian’s wintertime lament.
SLAVA’S SNOWSHOW | Created and staged by SLAVA | Presented by ROSS MOLLISON, DAVID J. FOSTER and UCLA LIVE at UCLA, Royce Hall | Through January 7 | (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org