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Simple magics are the best. For the most part, Slava Polunin’s are simple, an atmospheric amalgam of coy performance art, vague experimental-theater narrative, and wistful clowning, and though hardhearted types may complain that there’s not much there there, his Snowshow, a kind of bittersweet existential trek through one of those watery desktop snow-globes, has a gently wondrous air.
Spinning their near-wordless 90-minute spell, the Russian performer and a couple of compatriots seem to be concerned with exploring basic emotionsloneliness, fearin impressionistic vignettes that alternate between the elegant, the visceral, and the tenderly slapstick. Polunin, in a yellow jumpsuit and shaggy red slippers, shuffles gingerly onstage at the show’s opening tugging a noose, and for a moment you wonder how much of a downer the evening is going to be. But the noose turns out to be attached to a particularly long ropeand, at length and to Yellow’s consternation, to another potential suicide, a squat, dolefully insouciant creature in canoe-size velveteen slippers and a hat with earflaps like the wings of a glider.
He turns out to be a foil, a troublemaker, an awkward-little-brother figure of fun and mild pity who can’t even figure out how to cross his arms properly. Later, a similar subversion of horror echoes that first scene: Yellow staggers on, pierced by foam arrows like a dime-store St. Sebastian, and dies lavishly, egregiously, to the overemotional strains of Bruch. A beat, a lowering and a raising of the lights, and Squat (Sergei Chachelev) wanders out of the wings clutching a bow, wearing little wings, and looking seraphicor at least pleased with himself.
Theirs is an extraordinary subtle vocabulary of gestures, walks, and even silent stances, all signifying changes in their relationship, their momentary state of mind. From these shifts, bits of narrative emerge here and therea man waits alone in his room until a girl, wrapped like a bouquet in cellophane, arrives by courier; though she’s as pliable and unresponsive as a doll, she won’t fit into the vase that sits beside his bed, and he doesn’t know what to do with her.
But Snowshow is chiefly about images and the moods they can evoke: A balloon’s burst corpse, transfigured, rises from a wastebasket to become a sunlike silk orb; as Yellow watches, transfixed by its ascent, a glittering silver rain falls on him like a blessing. Later, as he sweeps up the leavings of stars and snowfall from the stage floor, his broom catches a thread of spider web that grows to entangle more than one might have thought possible.
A tatty overcoat, in the evening’s most touchingly understated and graceful scene, takes on life to mitigate Yellow’s empty-heartedness. But the reprieve is only momentary; the overcoat has a train to catch, and before it goes it slips what could be a Dear John letter into Yellow’s pocket. Finding it and reading it, his face droops, and he tears the letter up, casting the paper shreds toward the canopy of stars that domes the stage, triggering a snowfall that eventually envelops the entire audience. In the climactic scene that followsto describe it would be to undermine itYellow wanders alone again in a winterscape that hides danger behind its dreamy beauty; it’s a breathtaking bit of theater, an endorphin rush of sound and image (though the music that accompanies it is among the most hackneyed of classical pieces). The coda that follows it is as ingratiating as anything I’ve seen this year: Hundreds of Washingtonians play part-time clown with Yellow’s leftover toys while Snowshow’s hypnotic score plays on, sounding for all the world like the music of the spheres.
One note: If you’re averse to the new-agey emotionalism of Cirque de Soleil, avoid Snowshow. (Polunin did a tour with the Montreal-based troupe.) This has all the Cirque’s gossamer charm without any of the underlying menace that marks its best work. Still, it moved me in unexpected ways, with unexpected grace, to welcome effect.
Cumulatively, the snippets that make up Quererte Como Te Quiero, Teatro de la Luna’s collage of scenes from Federico García Lorca’s plays, don’t have the same impact. But this is a briskly paced, tightly acted overview of the poet’s work, an engaging and intelligent demonstration of his facility with forms ranging from bracingly veristic drama to the highly stylized, ritualistic machinations of commedia.
Some bits don’t work as well as others: the finale from The House of Bernarda Alba, which closes the evening, seems absurdly melodramatic standing alone (its explosion of emotion and violence needs the balance of the play’s stifling buildup), and a shrill, broadly played scene from The Girl Who Waters the Basil and the Inquisitive Prince doesn’t quite seem to have a center (or a point). Too, the English translations of García Lorca’s verse occasionally veer into the banal, and the readers who deliver them via headset to non-Spanish speaking audience members don’t have nearly the dramatic range of the actors onstage.
But three excerpts from Yerma, with a marvelous Carla McKinney as the embittered, childless title character, are tragedy at its bracing best, and several monologues from relative obscurities serve as effective scene bridges, punctuated and highlighted by Amilcar Cruz’s melancholy guitar.CP