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Pitching a Spiegeltent

Duncan Sheik, Reverend Billy, and Absinthe are among the cutting-edge acts that will call the South Street Seaport home during this European-style festival.

By New York City
David O'Mer in Absinthe
(© Marc Marnie)
David O'Mer in Absinthe
(© Marc Marnie)
In the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich crooned "Falling in Love Again" in a Speigeltent, the sort of antique pavilion of glass, red velvet, and varnished wood that was a wildly popular entertainment venue in both Europe and Australia. Now, Australian expatriates Ross Mollison and Vallejo Gantner are bringing not just one of these structures -- only 15 of which still exist -- but also the performance tradition itself to North American for the first time with Spiegeltent, which opens this week for two months on the site of the old Fulton Fish Market at the South Street Seaport. Allthough the tent is being built on historic land, the approximately 80 acts performing within its gates include such-cutting edge artists as Justin Bond, Diamanda Galás, Cynthia Hopkins, LAVA, the Bindlestiff Family Circus, and the Wau Wau Sisters.

While many of these acts will have brief stints, the main attraction of the Spiegeltent, Absinthe, is set to run throughout the two-month period. Described as "the anti-Cirque du Soleil," the show began at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2004 under the name La Clique and won international acclaim therafter in London, Melbourne, and Montreal. Its content changes almost every night, and local talent -- culled from places as diverse as gay bars and fetish clubs -- are recruited at every new touring destination. In the past, Absinthe has featured acrobats, contortionists, burlesque dancers, sword swallowers, even naked magicians. "To be honest, the show is two years old and I still can't descibe it," says Brett Haylock, one of the producers. "But I can say that the audience can feel it, smell it, and see it. Every ripple of muscle, every bead of sweat is -- bang! -- right in your face."

Reverend Billy, head of the Church of Stop Shopping, hopes to attract the same sort of audience with his show Saving the Souls of Tourists. In 1997, the Minnesota-based actor became a "sidewalk preacher" in Times Square. Since then, his show has grown into an interactive theater experience with a cast of more than 40 people, including a band and a choir. During his "services," he does not spread the Gospel of any organized religion; instead, he urges citizens to protect the environment, oppose militarism, and challenge big business.

The price of anti-corporate salvation has not come cheap; Reverend Billy has been arrested for protesting Disney's corporate practices. On one occasion, he paraded a crucified Mickey Mouse doll into the company's midtown store to demonstrate against their alleged use of sweatshop labor. Could something like that happen during the Spiegeltent run? Perhaps. The Reverend is adamantly opposed to several of the corporate entities that have outlets in the South Street Seaport area, such as the Gap and Victoria's Secret, and he has not ruled out the possibility of taking his followers to these stores for impromptu protests. "I think the congregation needs to exorcise the sweatshop companies," he says.

Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, who will perform with Vienna Teng on August 17, is not known for being overtly political -- which is why his latest album, White Limousine, has caught many people off guard. In addition to the title track, a subtle comment on aimless consumerism in America, the album contains more direct critiques in the songs "Shopping" and "Star-Field on Red Lines." Still, it's not primarily a political album, and the rest of the CD consists of Sheik's trademark meditations on love and loss. "I love what Reverend Billy does," says Sheik. "I think that it's an interesting line of inquiry, but I feel that he is a lot better at political ideology than I am."

So, when Sheik arrives at Spiegeltent, do not expect a fiery sermon. He's planning an evening of contemplative and soulful music that will likely include selections from his previous three albums as well as Spring Awakening, his hit Off-Broadway musical, which is expected to come to Broadway next year. "It's always been a goal of mine and [co-writer Steven Sater's] to bring the worlds of theater and contemporary music together," he says.

The producers of Spiegeltent are Australians who spend a lot of time looking at the ocean and the harbor back home, so they're quite surprised that New Yorkers take the East River for granted. To help us appreciate it more fully, they have designed a beer garden decked out with large umbrellas, cabañas, couches, and plants that will operate right next to the water in conjunction with the Spiegeltent. According to Vallejo, "It'll feel like you're out on the ocean on the deck of a cruise ship."


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