“Slava’s Snowshow,” which has returned to New York for a limited engagement more than a decade after its first Broadway run, is not your typical holiday fare. While the show’s cast is made up entirely of clowns, bulbous red noses, funny shoes and all, the tone is more ruminative and wistful than holly-jolly happy.
Then again, the holidays are famously a time of year when loneliness and angst tend to hit their peak for many people, so perhaps this vision of sad clowns forging their lonely paths through a chilly landscape will warm the hearts of those unmoved by, say, the zesty high-kicking of the Rockettes.
First created by the Russian producer and performer Slava Polunin in 1993, the show has toured widely internationally, gathering prestigious awards including an Olivier Award, as well as a Tony nomination. It first made an appearance Off-Broadway in 2004 before a short stint on Broadway in 2008.
In substance and style it remains essentially the same. Polunin himself still appears at some performances (the cast rotates), among a small cadre of clowns divided into two styles: Some appear in baggy yellow fleece jumpsuits, with wild mops of hair and fluffy red slippers, while other, slightly more sinister-looking clowns sport stiff green raincoats, floppy hats on their heads — it looks almost as if grubby seagulls have taken up permanent residence — and long, floppy shoes on their feet.
They shuffle on and offstage performing a series of odd, whimsical, often cryptic diversions, against a mostly empty winterscape often suffused with mist and fog; the mood is really more Samuel Beckett than Barnum & Bailey. Although it unfolds as a series of seemingly unrelated passages and mostly low-tech special effects, the precision of the performers in shaping the material Polunin has developed over the years gives the show a cohesion that gradually develops an affecting emotional undertow. On one level it’s pure, and starkly simple, entertainment, but it also presents a collective vision of human experience that echoes the pathos of great comics or mimes like Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau.
The props are minimal: a rack on which a clown tangles almost romantically with a coat, offering a rare moment of kindling warmth. Another magical moment finds one of the clowns juggling a glowing yellow orb with a long, thin wand, as if reaching out to grasp at the moon for company. A more macabre one finds a lone clown settled at a café table — with both chair and table tilted violently askew — struggling to keep from falling to the ground, again and again.
Aside from a burst of gibberish, the clowns do not really speak, which adds to their otherworldly presence, as of creatures in some post-apocalyptic world, wandering in search of warmth, company, comfort, mostly alone but sometimes forging their way together. The soundtrack is an eclectic mixture of classical and New Age-y music, including bits of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. The amplification could profitably be toned down a little, the better to enhance some of the show’s more subtly bewitching moments.
The clowns do, however, drop their remote aura during intermission, when they swarm into the audience, clambering across seats, capering with open water bottles, and generally behaving in more traditionally clownish ways. Anyone suffering from a serious case of coulrophobia — that’s fear of clowns, as you might guess — will want to streak up the aisles and slink back in when the intermission is ending.
And while the show mostly avoids obvious spectacle, there are a few authentic “wow” moments: a sudden outburst of bubbles filling the stage, glittering like streaking stars across a night sky, or the cobweb that first entangles one of the clowns, and then suddenly comes streaking out to envelop the entire audience.
But perhaps the most dazzling moment comes near the close, when a stormburst of snow (white confetti, in fact) blasts from the stage, turning the whole theater into a swirling snow globe. In the years since the show was created, and the years since I last saw it, this entrancing moment has taken on an odd air of poignancy.
Yes, it’s a blast of theatrical excitement, but it’s also, in these dire days of global warming, a reminder of how, at least in some parts of the world, the wondrous magic of a snowstorm may soon become a thing of mere legend.
“Slava’s Snowshow” plays the Stephen Sondheim Theatre until Jan. 5, 2020.
Producers: David Carpenter and John Arthur Pinckard, Hunter Arnold, Carl Daikeler,Curt Cronin, John Joseph, Gary Nelson, Van Kaplan/Jeff Wald, EMK International, David and Susan Buchanan/Michael T. Cohen/Gerry Ohrstrom and Mark and Allison Law/John Paterakis/Kayla Greenspan; Produced by arrangement with Slava Polunin and Gwenael Allan.
Creative: Created by Slava Polunin; Staged by Slava Polunin, Scenography; Slava Polunin and Viktor Plotnikov
Cast: Spencer Chandler, Georgiy Deliyev, Alexandre Frish, Slava Polunin, Vanya Polunin, Robert Saralp, Nikolai Terentiev, Elena Ushakova, Aelita West, Bradford West and Artem Zhimo.