Performing fast-paced, high-risk goings-on that fill the lush red-velvet tent.
And that’s just the filthy two-person team who host Spiegelworld’s new cabaret/circus/vaudeville show.
In the intimate space of the spiegeltent, Master of Ceremonies The Gazillionaire is an energetically unsavoury presence. With flashing gold tooth, lank greasy hair, brocade jacket and too-short trousers, he tells us he is the show’s producer and has taken the MC role himself as a money-saving measure.
His co-host, wide-eyed ingénue Penny Pibbet, is decked out in absinthe-green ruffles and bright red wig. But don’t assume she’s an innocent: in her little-girl voice, she enthusiastically endorses all things sexual.
The show is named after the notorious green-coloured drink that reputedly causes madness and hallucinations. Sure enough, the symbol of the drink’s seductive power—the Green Fairy—soon appears. Australia’s Karla Tonkich has cellophane wings and a petite form that brings to mind Kylie Minogue in her Moulin Rouge appearance. (Not surprisingly, Absinthe’s costume designer is Angus Strathie who—with Catherine Martin—designed costumes for Moulin Rouge.)
Tonkich strips down to her heart-shaped pasties and sings a warning to “sensible” people: “Early to bed/Early to rise/Makes a man or woman/Miss out on the night life.” Her voice is powerful, her presence indeed seductive.
Absinthe re-appears in one of the first acts. Oleksandr “Sacha” Volohdim (from Ukraine) sits at a table on which stands a glowing green flask. He “drinks” a glass and we hear maniacal laughter.
He begins to stack chairs on the table, then chairs on top of other chairs, higher and higher, then at crazy angles. But if he is under the drink’s influence, he performs with remarkable steadiness as he climbs up, balancing precariously, then—almost touching the roof of the tent—performs a handstand on top of the whole teetering tower.
Subsequent acts are similarly athletic and precise. The Lost Souls, four young male gymnasts (also from Ukraine) balance, create pyramids, and finally toss their smallest member high into the air.
Los Dos Tacos—from Belarus, not Mexico—perform a fast-and-furious horizontal bar act. As they swing past each other, they demonstrate split-second timing, agility and mutual trust.
The Gazillionaire introduces The Duo Creative (Poland) as his bodyguards, and they look suitably intimidating in suits, sunglasses and rock-hard jawlines. Even discarding suits and sunnies, they remain unsmiling throughout their breathtaking display of strength in their hand-balance act.
Jacob Oberman and Maika Isogawa of the USA create a different mood with their graceful and sensual performance on duo straps, entwining like lovers, gliding over each other while suspended in the air—and finishing with a kiss.
Again the mood changes with a raucous Fire Burlesque by leather-clad Angie Sylvia (Sweden). Set to hard-rockin’ music, the routine involves Sylvia caressing her body with naked flames.
German pair Cavea Aurea enact sexual exploration in an aerial hoop act. The two performers begin dressed as sexy schoolgirls in white blouses and pleated skirts, soon shedding layers and climbing over each other on the suspended hoop. Like the act on duo straps, this one too ends with a tender kiss.
The Duo Adagio is something else again. Apparently big-haired “Ivan and Ivana Chekhov-Jones” developed their “modern dance” act at the Rooty Hill RSL. In reality it’s a parody, descending into slapstick when Ivan falls off the stage. And then Ivana’s foot accidentally catches in Ivan’s budgie-smugglers … Talk about costume malfunction!
As a whole, the show is a kaleidoscope of skills, moods, energy levels, and musical styles. All acts are breathtaking; music choices and sound design are delivered through a high-quality system; visual aspects, from atmospheric lighting to the red velvet drapes to the costumes, are all impressive, put together by a high-calibre creative team.
Less impressive are the attempts to bind the show’s individual elements into a cohesive whole. The framing device—that The Gazillionaire is a cost-cutting philistine—is not developed to its full comedy potential. Instead, the humour of Gazillionaire and Penny Pibbets demonstrates that comedy, like high-wire walking or the horizontal bars, involves breath-taking risks and high levels of danger—and may fall flat.
For a start, there are the ethnic insults—not all that funny, and definitely not “subversive” as described in the promotional materials. Yes, I know that ethnic humour was always a part of vaudeville—and was seen by some commentators as part of an ethnic melting-pot function in turn-of-last-century United States—but it was also criticized in its own time as being hurtful.
And, anyway, ethnic humour doesn’t have to be nasty. I recently saw Simon Palomares (Wogs out of Work) deliver hilarious ethnic stand-up to a very diverse audience. The act was inclusive rather than offensive; he found the high-wire balance that is missing in Absinthe.
In addition, The Gazillionaire and Penny’s treatment of sex goes beyond edgy or raw or gritty. I found it unrelentingly primitive, clumsy and rough—heavy-handed, to use an appropriate metaphor. “Subversive” humour works best when sly and enticing and, anyway, a lighter, more teasing touch can also feel so … so … good.
It’s a clever show created by talented people. After all, 200,000 Australians saw Empire, the previous production by this team. And, certainly, The Gazillionaire and Penny are, like all the acts, compelling and dynamic performers.
It just seems a shame their material isn’t a tad more sophisticated.
Note: Absinthe is recommended for ages 15 and above. The performance features some nudity and strong language.