If you enjoy Cirque du Soleil acrobatics but believe they’d be even better with dirty jokes, then “Absinthe” is the spinoff you’ve been waiting for.
Playing downtown in a tent at L.A. Live, “Absinthe” is a touring version of the politically incorrect, gymnastically impressive spectacle by the production company Spiegelworld playing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for close to six years. The show’s steampunk aesthetic and burlesque and circus acts evoke the cabarets of late-19th century Europe — the heyday of absinthe drinking — but exist primarily to make fun of Cirque du Soleil.
“Absinthe” proceeds from the assumption that we tolerate Cirque’s haute-culture trappings and cryptic imagery — that French-Canadian junk — only so that we can watch gorgeous bodies defy death in sexually suggestive positions.
And the show’s emcee and (fictive) impresario, an oily cynic known as the Gazillionaire, is only too happy to give us what he’s sure we want. His female acrobats dress like strippers in lacy lingerie, bondage gear and cheerleader outfits. The men whip off their shirts mid-air to expose abdominal muscles of unprecedented intricacy. Pair stunts are choreographed like athletic foreplay and conclude in passionate kisses.
The audience is seated so tightly around the 9-foot circular stage that people in the front row are advised not to stand up during certain acts lest they get kicked in the face. The implied benefit is an unimpeded view of every bulge and divot in the skin-tight singlets. Lest this ringside perk be overlooked, the Gazillionaire and his ditzy, lewd sidekick, Daisy Dibbles, draw frequent attention to that.
The acrobatic talent is impressive, even to those for whom the stunts are familiar. You have your chair stacker (who works without spilling absinthe from a bottle on a tray), your trio of muscle-bound Russians flipping a smaller counterpart into the air, your aerialist (who dangles out of a giant plastic bubble), your male gymnasts whirling in tandem on the parallel bars.
These stunts seem riskier here than in other venues because of their proximity to the audience and the show’s cavalier attitude toward stodgy rules and regulations. Before the action begins, the Gazillionaire recites “the safety crap” in a voice-over that drips with contempt for anybody who would waste thought on such trivialities when there are stiff drinks to be downed and those bulges to ogle. (One of his stated objectives is to get the audience “nice and drunk,” and a cash bar is set up right in the performance space.)
In perhaps the most bracing stunt, a “priest” and a “nun” in roller skates strip to their underwear and spin in tight circles to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” At one point the nun is upside down, her feet bound to the priest’s neck, her head a fraction of inch above the stage, her life — as well as that of the people in the front row — terrifyingly at the mercy of centrifugal and centripetal forces.
In a similarly disconcerting moment, stagehands come into the audience to install parallel bars on the stage. They whisk away chairs that have been marked “reserved,” exposing holes in the floor, where they attach rope anchors. I was sitting next to one of the reserved seats. As the stagehand knelt beside me, winching chains and muttering into a headset, I had the urge to ask, “Is that being done to code, young man?”
This wasn’t the only time “Absinthe” turned me into a grumpy old woman, sourly observing the hilarity around me. The show’s humor is of the keep-going-until-they’re-cringing brand. The Gazillionaire and Daisy don’t just make filthy remarks in passing; they stop to embroider and embellish them, hammering them relentlessly home. Once in a while they achieve that miracle whereby, through relentless repetition, something very unfunny becomes funny. Their cleverest number is a sendup of Cirque du Soleil, in which they perform a clumsily emo ballet together.
More often, that miracle eludes them. Gaz (as the character is fondly known in Sin City) is an insult comic who spends a lot of time singling out audience members for mockery based on their ethnicity (at one point using an elaborately bad Chinese accent to address an Asian person) and presumed homosexuality. The aim seems to be to shock us with no-holds-barred talk, trading in stereotypes. But the most shocking thing about this material is how tired and dated it seems.
“Absinthe” is here for a “limited engagement.” How limited may depend on whether L.A. audiences can drink enough to get into the show’s spirit and still drive home afterward. (They can’t just roll on down the Vegas Strip.) “Absinthe” may succeed wildly here, but from my point of view, what works in Vegas can stay in Vegas.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: L.A. Live event deck, 1005 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $49 and up
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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