Absinthe” throws together more genres and moods than a circus, a burlesque show, a carnival, a vaudeville act and the entire summer run of “America’s Got Talent” combined. Whether that’s a good thing is another matter. A variety show is inherently schizophrenic, a deliberate mash-up of styles that’s meant to overwhelm as much as cohere. But when the acts don’t stand up on their own, that lack of coherence can quickly turn into noise, which happens a little too often in this promising but undeveloped production under a Spiegeltent.
Spiegeltents, for the uninitiated, are a European tradition in which performers gather for musical and other forms of (sometimes off-color) fun. The Gotham incarnation circa 2006, a glorious stained-glass construction along the East River that possesses a throwback charm, has the makings of a playful and enchanting affair.
What actually takes place under it, though, has an improbable, almost cloying, diversity that’s likely to make auds feel elated one minute and puzzled the next. The skits are a grab-bag of almost intentional disorganization: Bubble-blowers give way to German cabaret; stripteases lead to trapezists.
In between, bits of comedy lighten the mood (further). “My bits are less ‘wow’ and more ‘why,’ ” one performer says after she, um, pries her lips open with scissors. A woman sings raunchily about her privates in pidgin Spanish.
The show is pitched as a sexier Cirque de Soleil, which is fair enough, but there are moments when it feels like a more culturally aware bachelor or bachelorette party.
The comedy, while broad, can be enjoyable, and the acts can bring the grandeur of the circus to the intimacy of Off Broadway. It’s not often one gets to see the minute physical movements of acrobats at such close range.
But the impressive feats often are undercut by self-conscious schmaltz. In a juggling act, the balls are just beginning to fly when the performer, almost losing interest in his own bit, turns it into a drag show, before wrapping it up with — what else? — a trick involving a pogo stick and knives. And you thought Regis had found some oddballs.
“Absinthe” also struggles with its own intentions. The burlesque elements seem bent on sendup, but how do you send up what’s spoof in the first place? A magic act masquerades as a striptease — or is it the other way around? — in an act that’s not quite funny or sexy enough for either. And a perfectly wonderful set of acrobatic movements by men who looked like they stepped out of a Magritte painting devolves into silliness when they strip to skivvies imprinted with the Union Jack.
One of “Absinthe’s” producers also produced the exquisite Off Broadway hit “Slava’s Snowshow.” One can detect the same spirit of absurdism here. But “Slava” delivers an existential goofiness that’s rare in a theater world polarized between drama and comedy; “Absinthe” lacks similar depth.
The final act — in which the well-sculpted, bare-chested David O’Mer performs trapeze tricks over a tub of water, splashing the audience as he goes — points up “Absinthe’s” strengths and its more abundant weaknesses. The skit has dazzle and humor, but for a finale, the moment is neither towering enough as spectacle nor witty enough as camp. Sometimes, it turns out, you can have too much variety.