GREAT clowns appeal to the child in all of us, though little kids make the best judges of them. By the sound of the squeals at the opening of "Slava's Snowshow" at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday night, Slava Polunin would have to be considered world class.
But then he and his comic cohorts work the crowd unusually hard. Put it this way: There's no safety in your seat. If you don't want to be squirted with a water bottle, covered in a sticky spider-web-like substance or blinded by bright lights and a windstorm of confetti, this isn't the show for you. Treat yourself instead to Matthew Bourne's charming "Edward Scissorhands" at the Ahmanson, a dance-theater piece that, like "Slava's Snowshow," isn't intended as a holiday merriment but serves as a cool alternative to yet another "Nutcracker."
Connoisseurs of circus foolery, youngsters who won't be too disturbed by a man with a red nose walking around with a noose around his neck and lovers of dazzling theater imagery will, however, find much to relish in Slava's extravaganza.
There's a marvelous simplicity to the magic of this internationally renowned Russian troupe, which was invited to conclude UCLA Live's theater offerings for the year. Call it avant-garde for tots, though oversized tykes will probably eat it up too.
Beauty, the production demonstrates, doesn't require Spielberg-scale special effects. Oohs and ahs are elicited with not much more technology than a fog machine, a gigantic fan and a sound system that blares an eclectic, mood-setting score along with all kinds of decorative noise.
A starry night sky that could serve as a backdrop for a Peanuts Gang school play helps create the impression of a frozen wonderland. But the crucial ingredient is nothing more than tons of recyclable little pieces of white paper that lightly drop from the ceiling and later, in the spectacular finale, crescendo into a Siberian-style blizzard. (One sign of growing older: a rush of profound sympathy for the cleanup crew.)
Slava's string of surreal confrontations with a typically uncooperative external reality carries an existential ping. Hardship, loneliness, ill-treatment, yes, even the treachery of mortality are themes. But they aren't pressed or made depressing -- this isn't Beckett for preschoolers. Instead, they're part of a comic vision that treats the world as an adventure that isn't always smooth sailing, a perspective any toddler learning to walk or zipper a coat can readily share.
Dressed in a canary-colored and not particularly warm-looking pajama sack (would someone please sew him a pair of mittens!), Slava battles more than just inclement weather. With spine-bending grace and formidable fortitude, he navigates a makeshift sailboat in raging seas, contends with a squad of loonies in floppy hats and tries to make friends with an array of objects big and small that all seem to have outlandish minds of their own.
One bit has Slava holding a conversation in male and female voices on two different phones, one pink, the other yellow. This act elicited much enthusiasm from the younger set, who obviously enjoyed the way strange adult accessories can be transformed into opportunities for playacting and silly fun.
Not everyone in the audience seemed to appreciate the direct contact with performers. But then most people don't like being doused or having their pocketbooks bounced around. It would also be easy to fault the show for being too much a grab bag, a loose compilation of skits without even the suggestion of an overarching narrative. But then Scrooges should probably stay at home.
Yet stressed-out holiday minds might find unexpected solace in Slava's appeal to the naive parts of our minds. In fact, quite a few adults looked oddly refreshed by the end as they competed with their kids to give the giant bouncing balls in the audience a good hard whack.
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood
When: 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
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes