Clowning gets serious in Slava’s show

by Lindsay Nelson

Special To The Japan Times

“Slava’s Snowshow” feels like a dream — and occasionally a nightmare. Its surreal scenarios play out one after another on a stage set with seemingly oversized, fluffy blankets that give the audience a sense of being tucked inside a child’s bed. There’s no real narrative — but as in dreams, there doesn’t need to be. It’s enough to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

“Slava’s Snowshow” is as tough to categorize as its creator, the 64-year-old Russian performance artist Vyacheslav Ivanovich “Slava” Polunin, who has achieved international fame in the realms of pantomime, clowning, large-scale spectacle, street theater and beyond.

At the age of 18, Polunin founded a theater company in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) that he named Litsedeyi (Russian for “mummers” or, literally, “people who make faces”), which produced several renowned works — including “Dreamers,” “Eccentrics in the Attic” and “From the Life of Insects” — before he disbanded it in 1988.

Since then, “Slava’s Snowshow” has been one of a number of Polunin’s projects that have been successful worldwide and have helped finance his less lucrative work, particularly the Academy of Fools, which aims to resurrect carnival culture in Russia. Since debuting in 1993, it has been seen in 30 countries by more than five million people.

The show has clowns, but it’s not a circus. Its scenes aren’t really linked by a common theme, but they all seem to touch on loneliness, bonding and the inherent absurdity of life.

“Slava’s Snowshow” is playful and silly, but there’s an undercurrent of tragedy that runs throughout, right from the joke at the very start — about two men hanging themselves.

And though it’s billed as family entertainment, and some children will certainly love it, it may be too intense (and too lacking in narrative structure) for some of them.

“Slava’s Snowshow” is essentially a series of visual tableaux anchored by a group of comically sad-looking clowns. The world they inhabit is dark and a little forbidding, contrasting sharply with their bright jumpsuits and red noses. They’re funny, in both senses, yet also look like shadows of their former selves. Their makeup is haphazard and smudged. Their wigs are coming unstuck from their heads.

The clowns interact with the audience several times during the show — though I was relieved to see a sign at the entrance saying audience members were free to decline to play. However, like the rest of this production, the interactions are not what you’d expect. There’s slapstick humor, to be sure, but there also seems to be a genuine desire to create a sense of community, and to involve the audience in the crazy, nonsensical antics of the show’s world.

The real joy of “Slava’s Snowshow” is the parade of visual surprises it offers, and I’m loathe to give too many of them away. From the very beginning, though, I was reminded of children’s books, especially Johanna Westerman’s illustrations of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” with their huge yellow moons, dark and starry skies, and a giant wooden-shoe boat.

In “Slava’s Snowshow,” the colorfully costumed characters and the bulky, not-quite-realistic set pieces seem to pop from the stage. Bubbles, balloons and bucketfuls of confetti overflow into the audience (you’ll be picking confetti out of your hair and your clothes for a while).

Then, in the show’s most famous visual surprise, the finale features a “snowstorm” with giant fans blowing white confetti over the audience, accompanied by bright lights and the deafening roar of wind.

That was powerful, to be sure, but by far my favorite moment came afterward, when the performers released a dozen giant balloon-balls into the crowd. At this point any semblance of separation between audience and performer completely broke down, and everyone just had fun tossing the balls back and forth, shrieking, showering each other with confetti and taking photos.

The revelry was still in full swing when I finally left the theater, balloons occasionally bonking me on the head as I made my way out. But I kind of didn’t want to depart the world that “Slava” had created.

“Slava’s Snowshow” runs till Aug. 17 at Theater 1010 in Kita-Senju, Tokyo. For details, visit slavasnowshow.jp.