The warped burlesque circus show "Absinthe" is Cirque du Soleil's younger sister — more brash, less inhibited and more naked.
Because they both attempt to update the traditional circus with modern artistic sensibilities, its easy to draw comparisons between the two. However, "Absinthe" — playing at the Spiegeltent through September — is far raunchier, funnier and more intimate than its better-known Quebecois forerunner.
The performers in "Absinthe" run the gamut from singers, jugglers, sword swallowers, men of unusual strength, and women of unusual beauty and dexterity. But there is a twist with nearly every act, something that makes you question how they even conceived of the idea, let along practiced it every day.
The English Gentlemen, two men wearing pinstriped, three-piece suits and bowler hats, for example, perform stunning gymnastic lifts and balancing acts to a beautiful symphonic piece. The more serious of the duo mimics reading a paper and smoking a pipe while the other balances his entire body on his head at one point, using one hand.
Then the men rip off their clothing, revealing British flag underwear and bodies chiseled from rock. Without breaking character and to retain a smidgen of their former stiff-upper-lip dignity, they keep the bowler hats on as they finish their routine.
The sword swallower, a sassy, Betty Boop-esque woman in a red rubber dress, plunges scissors down her throat, as well as the foot-long silver leg of a table. Miss Behave, as she is known, also performs torture on her tongue, extinguishing a lighted cigar on it and piercing it with a long-stem carnation, then twisting it the entire way around in her mouth.
She is easily the most charismatic of the bunch, calling the audience members "darlings" and flirting with both men and women.
But the sword swallower keeps her clothing on, which is something that can't be said about the magician. Hers is one disappearing napkin trick few people have ever seen.
The magician, a London-based performing artist named Ursula Martinez, mounts a piano dressed in a tight, schoolmarm suit. She then tucks a red napkin into her hand and makes it disappear, only to pull it seconds later from an article of clothing, which she duly removes to prove there is no trickery involved.
Martinez swings her hips and taunts the audience with coy eyes, driving more than a few audience members wild with delight. Completely naked at center stage, she performs the trick one last time and pulls the napkin from an intimate part of her body.
The final artist, German acrobat David OMer, performs an aerial ballet over a bathtub that is truly mesmerizing to watch. He swings from straps attached to the tents roof, flips and twists high above the tub, then dips and dives into the water, dousing himself and the front row of the audience — covered by plastic sheeting — in water. Clad only in a pair of wet jeans, OMer is a sight to behold. The sultry music only adds to the sensual atmosphere.
The setting of the performance lends an even more interesting aspect to the evening. The Spiegeltent — Flemish for "tent of mirrors" — is constructed entirely of teak, stained glass, velvety fabrics and hundreds of gleaming mirrors. Dating back to the early 1900s, it was shipped over from Europe and reconstructed on the site of the former Fulton Fish Market at the South Street Seaport for two months of performances.
Because the tent only seats about 350, there is a coziness that accentuates the performances in "Absinthe." Yes, there is a possibility you will get wet, and you’ll probably be able to smell Miss Behaves cigar, too.