Seen and Heard

Seen at the Spiegeltent: One of the perks of being a theatre reviewer is good seats at every performance. But this comes at a price. I was seated in the front row of the one-ring circus known as Absinthe, where in the space of two acts I dodged the potty-mouthed one-liners of the host, held the casually discarded costume of a wayward pogo-sticking machete juggler, and faced the perilously flying limbs of contortionists and a roller-skating act seemingly imported from England to lop my head off at the neck. And I’d probably do it again.

This is the second edition of the “acro-burlesque” that originated at the South Street Seaport last summer, a considerably more bawdy addition to the tourist area’s family-friendly attractions. Absinthe is staged in a genuine “spiegeltent” (Flemish for “tent with mirrors”) that the producers imported from Europe, where the traveling entertainment was popular in the early 20th century, and for design buffs this ornate teak structure, erected in a picturesque part of Manhattan, is itself worth the price of admission. Besides the many mirrors, an array of cut glass adornments, billowing velvet, and brocade curtains create an intimate Weimar-esque fantasia on the pier. The 250 chairs within (complemented by handsome banquettes on its outer perimeter that can seat an additional 100 patrons) are no more than 20’ from the performers, so no one is really safe as they make their way on and off the center ring.

The premise of the show is that the forked-tongue Gazillionaire (Volki Kalfayan), an absinthe distiller, is underwriting the production, and has stuffed it with acts that are to his twisted liking. He and his guileless assistant Penny (Anais Thomassian) introduce the performers, who the producer Rob Mollison and director Wayne Harrison (former artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company) have recruited from worldwide. Only one, the aforementioned wayward pogo-sticking machete juggler Nate Cooper, has been held over from last year; joining him are the treacherous roller skating duo, the Willers; former Cirque du Soleil member Olaf Triebel, who had a hard time staying in his pajamas as he pretzeled himself over wooden rods; androgynous glam rocker Paul Capsis, who gave Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, and Janis Joplin a run for their money; plus assorted aerialists and dancer Julie Atlas Muz, who stuffed herself inside a balloon. Leave the kids at home: There is no costume designer credited for Absinthe, which is just as well, as the point is to get as many of the acts down to their briefs as possible.

Perhaps to retain the aura of mystery, there are no designers on the bill. These anonymous artisans, however, have done their jobs well, with their typically skimpy but evocative/provocative costumes, a hard-pumping soundtrack, and a few moving lights deployed to accentuate the action. I’m eager to see what the creators will pull out of their hats next summer, but may ask to sit a little farther in the back. Absinthe runs through Sept. 30 at the spiegeltent, which is near the vacated Fulton Fish Market and is as pungent as its predecessor, in a definitely different way.

Seen Off Broadway: From Absinthe to the Arab situation, a grimmer affair but, at least in the case of Betty Shamieh’s The Black Eyed, not without a few laughs. For this all-woman play, scenic designer Paul Steinberg has transformed the New York Theatre Workshop into a pink plywood palace; the planking extends from the stage and, secured by cables, is positioned over the audience. It’s whimsical, but also confining, as is the production, which takes place in this cloyingly pretty afterlife. One of the female Arab characters, Aiesha (Aysan Celik), awakens onstage as the show opens. Aiesha is a suicide bomber, and her rebellion against the status quo is contrasted to that of the Biblical Delilah (Emily Swallow), who has a bone to pick with Samson and the Philistines, and Tamam (Lameece Issaq), who committed suicide rather than submit to rape during the Crusades. A fourth woman, the careerist Architect (Jeanine Sarralles), confounds the other three with her constant insecure chatter. But we come to learn that she has a tragic connection to Aiesha, and that her take on the themes of terror, oppression, and resistance carries as much weight as the sarcasm and sloganeering of her peers.

Designwise, the show thinks pink, as Shamieh works blue. There is a good deal of sexual humor to the production, as the lonely women await the Muslim martyrs whom the Koran allegedly says will come their dark-eyed way. Director Sam Gold keeps their freewheeling debates ping-ponging, but can’t do much with the writer’s more didactic side, as the characters speak in unison and make sophomoric pronouncements (“Unanswered questions. Unquestioned answers.”) Still, this is more engaging way to address problems left to dry on the front or op-ed pages of the newspapers, and it gets further assists from Gabriel Berry’s beautiful Arabian Nights costumes for Delilah and Tamam, and well-chosen contemporary garb for the modern-day women; Jane Cox’s lighting, which ups the ante on the coloring or tamps it down dramatically in times of transition or crisis; and Darron L. West’s faceted sound design, which has an aural palette all its own. The Black Eyed, the second production of the New York Theatre Workshop’s 25th season, runs through Aug. 19.

The Palestinian problem is plumbed from the male perspective in Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor’s Masked, which has had 100 productions since 1990 but is only now making its New York debut, at the DR2 Theater. With the borders being redrawn and tensions rising to a new crest the show’s appearance is alas still timely, even if it falters. None too subtly set in a butcher shop, which is reasonably neat expect for a freshly hung carcass and bloodstains, Masked is the story of three Palestinian brothers in conflict as much with themselves as with their sworn enemy. Na’im (Arian Moayed), a key member of the intifada, tells his younger brother, shopkeeper Khalid (Sanjit De Silva), that their eldest sibling, Daoud (Daoud Heidami), is an informer, one whose double dealing resulted in grievous injury suffered by a fourth, unseen brother. Circumstances force Na’im and Khalid to trap Daoud in the shop when he pays a visit, as the play thickens with revelations, recrimination, physical violence, and paranoia.

Skillfully directed by Ami Dayan, who tightens the screws effectively over 70 minutes, the Greek tragedy-influenced Masked is nevertheless more a case of good intentions than the successful realization of same. A gun is conveniently pulled to advance the plot and, more crucially, the leads, unable to leaven Hatsor’s occasionally overwrought dialogue, give flat performances. The no-exit set design, by Wilson Chin and Ola Maslik, makes a strong statement on its own, with tidy, unfussy contributions by LD Thom Weaver, costume designer Jennifer Caprio, and sound designer Joachim Horsely, who has a plangent Mideast score by Omri Hason to work with. (Daedalus Design and Production built the set.) For all its flaws, however, the shock of recognition that greeted Masked on its Israel premiere, as the clash of cultures found its way to the stage and got a sympathetic hearing, still reverberates.—Robert Cashill

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