THINK of it as a pre-Internet "flash mob." In 1987, the celebrated Russian clown Slava Polunin spirited 200 like-minded souls to an uninhabited island off the Gulf of Finland to school them in the art of street theater. Their target was nearby Leningrad and its environs, which the motley assembly reached by boat for a series of unannounced sorties.
"We would suddenly occupy a little town, and the people wouldn't know where we came from," Polunin recently recalled with mischievous pleasure. "It was like an invasion."
Fair warning, then, to the unsuspecting townsfolk of Los Angeles: When the eponymous "Slava's Snowshow" blows into UCLA's Royce Hall this week, you may not know what hit you. Actually, you will likely be struck by a few things you can easily identify -- a truckload of windblown paper confetti, some stray water-bottle spray, a flock of flying beach balls -- but you may have a harder time placing "Snowshow's" dreamlike mix of old-world charm and Day-Glo slapstick.
While it's a crowd-pleasing attraction that's toured the world and has been running off-Broadway for more than two years, "Slava's Snowshow" is no mere kiddie holiday romp. Its broad crossover pedigree is precisely the reason David Sefton, the acutely avant-garde programmer at UCLA Live, snapped it up.
"There aren't that many really cool family shows," said Sefton, who saw Polunin and his company in their first performance outside the Soviet Union, at London's Hackney Empire in 1988. "So many shows geared to kids I find either thin or patronizing. And there are so few shows that are big, mainstream commercial shows that can also fit into our international work."
What Sefton saw onstage in 1988 wasn't yet called "Snowshow," but Polunin's signature character was already at its center: a soulful grouch with a cheery red nose, dressed in a sun-yellow coverall that sags forlornly, suggesting a cross between pajamas and toxic-waste cleanup gear. It's a fitting get-up for an artist shaped not only by European clown traditions but also by life in the former Soviet Union: Polunin's mime troupe Litsedeyi performed in Chernobyl in the aftermath of its nuclear power disaster.
That may be one reason why Yellow, the lead clown in what has since evolved into the whimsical multi-character roundelay "Snowshow," makes his first entrance with a noose. No, ladies and gentlemen, this show is not to be mistaken for "Blue's Clues Live."
A natural progression
BORN in 1950, Vyacheslav Ivanovich Polunin missed the World War II battles that ravaged his central Russian hometown of Novosil. But even had he grown up amid falling bombs, Polunin appears to have been the sort of dreamer whose fantasy life could have withstood worse. When he was young, he studied films of Charlie Chaplin, and later the French mime of Etienne Decroux, Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau. But his earliest and strongest memories, he said, are of nature.
"My most vivid impression of childhood is that I always liked to be out of doors," Polunin said. "I spent so many hours indoors that every window of opportunity I got, I went outside."
Certainly he must have played in the snow as exuberantly as children at "Slava's Snowshow" now romp amid a confetti simulation. But Polunin evidently felt enough of a chill to glimpse another level.
"Snow is a tragic thing because it's a symbol of the coldness and death. On the other hand it's also a symbol of clearing -- of always renewing from day to day. It's also," he added, as if it were self-evident, "a symbol of the marriage dress."
That sounds like a leap, but in Polunin's case it's not an idle association. Polunin has often referred to the ideal theatrical experience as "a kind of wedding cavalcade where I try to marry everyone to everyone."
The image also popped up, in a different form, in conversation with Jef Johnson, an American clown who has toured with Cirque du Soleil and joined "Snowshow's" New York company two years ago.
"To me, when Yellow faces the audience, it's a mirror -- they see themselves," said Johnson, who alternates in the lead role in the New York production. "So I can feel their pain, despite their desire to relax and be happy. We share in this moment, and when it locks, when there's a marriage, it's like medicine."
The six-member clown company's link with audiences is no mere theoretical concept. Sneeze at this show and you may get more than a friendly gesundheit; arrive late and you're done for. The cast seems to let these interactive moments -- which usually include a long post-show beach-ball toss -- teeter as far as they can to the edge of a free-for-all.
"The more people engage with it, the more crazy it becomes," Sefton said. "The ratio of kids in the audience changes that too -- and adults who prefer to act like kids. But it never gets beyond being in the actors' hands. They've done it for some very boisterous crowds."
Involving the audience
THOSE would probably be the American ones. Polunin admitted that after a month with New York audiences, he felt the need to cut some of the show's slower passages, and said he may tweak the show further during its 31 performances in Los Angeles. Said Robert Saralp, who will alternate with Polunin as Yellow during the L.A. run: "Because for Russian audiences the show is partly nostalgia, mostly Russian people cry and Americans laugh at the same moment."
But a short attention span is rooted in the show's flow -- and may be the secret to its childlike appeal.
"As a child, you go to pick up one thing, and suddenly you get affected by another thing and you forget about the first one," Polunin explained. "So, yes, we start the show with a suicide attempt, because the man feels that there is no escape. But he sees that life is about that first impression he had."
Naturally, the audience plays a role in that distraction. As Polunin put it: "Clown itself is only half a show; clown and audience is the whole show."
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA campus, Westwood
When: Opens Wednesday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions
Ends: Jan 7
Price: $42 to $68
Contact: (310) 825-2101