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Slava Polunin in Slava's Snowshow
(Photo © Veronique Vial)
Two clowns sail through a sea of fog. An enormous spider web envelops the audience. And most impressively of all, a winter snowstorm is created within the Union Square Theatre. These are just a few of the striking images in Slava's Snowshow, a magical theatrical experience that appeals to both children and adults alike. Created by Slava Polunin, who also stars in the show, the production is a marvelous display of clowning produced by a master of the genre.

Polunin just needs to look out at the audience to make us start laughing. He's dressed in a baggy yellow snowsuit accented by a red clown nose, red scarf, and red slippers. The Russian artist's shock of white hair sticks out haphazardly from the sides of his head. His wrinkled skin, painted-on stubble, and eye makeup give him the appearance of a world-weary traveler.

He's soon joined by five other clowns, dressed identically in green trench coats, black boots with oversized toe extensions, and hats with enormous ear flaps that jut out horizontally. According to the publicity materials, the lineup of the clowns and the specific routines on the program change from performance to performance. However, certain acts -- particularly the finale -- remain constant.

Victor Plotkinov is credited as the overall designer of the show, assisted by Oleg Iline on lights and Rastyam Dubinnikov on sound. All of the design elements work together to create a vibrant and unique theatrical experience. The set is made up of seven large quilted panels that form a backdrop for the stage action. For the majority of the show, the blue of the panels serves as a vast expanse of nighttime sky, complete with crescent moon; later, the panels are reversed to reveal a cottony whiteness that helps create the illusion of a snowstorm.

The lighting design is a crucial component of the stage environment: large, translucent balls glow like stars, soap bubbles glint and glisten, fog sparkles. There is musical underscoring for several sequences within the show, including such familiar tunes as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the theme song from Chariots of Fire, and melodies from Carmina Burana. Some other selections are less famous but hauntingly beautiful. Additional sounds -- birds, ocean waves, crickets, etc. -- are layered into the music, and Polunin and company perform their routines to the luscious soundscape with choreographed precision.

In order to experience the production to the fullest, make sure to get a seat in the orchestra. At several points during the show, the clowns come into the house to engage the audience members -- most notably towards the end of the intermission, which segués into the beginning of the second act. Many of these hilarious antics are probably difficult to see from the mezzanine (although a clown or two may wander up there), and other interactive sequences are likewise not as effective when they are only observed.

Slava's Snowshow has become an international sensation, and it's not hard to understand why. The show does not offer a linear narrative but its images add up to a comical meditation on life, death, and the beauty of the universe. Polunin is at the center of this experience, and he conveys volumes without ever speaking a word. Occasionally, he'll converse in a made-up nonsense language; but, usually, he and his company of clowns remain silent, letting their facial expressions and body movements do the talking.

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