nytheatre.com review by Adam Klasfeld
July 9, 2007
The South Street Seaport has changed in recent years. The fish markets have swum upstream to the Bronx, leaving no traces or smells behind them. Large chains have replaced most of the local shops and restaurants. While the area had not been a tight-knit community for awhile, its transformation into an East River mini-mall is near complete, but thankfully the Spiegeltent Festival is raising a little hell in this tourist haven for the rest of the summer with a dirty little cabaret/burlesque/circus from decadent French Canada named La Vie.
An acrobatic meditation on sex and death, La Vie begins with an androgynous emcee informing the audience that we're recently deceased passengers aboard the titular airline to Purgatory, "the flight to Hell that never quite gets there." In the turbulent flight, we encounter travelers that only the intrepid would care to sit beside. First up is Isabella, a certified mental patient and contortionist who moves gracefully in her straightjacket. During her routine, she moves to the music of Patsy Cline, embracing herself for "Back in Baby's Arms" and going through a mental breakdown for "Crazy." In the art of true carnival entertainment, she spells out such obvious jokes with subtlety and panache.
The flight promises a guided tour of our unspoken fantasies, and there are some familiar characters lurking there: the stentorian schoolteacher in the sheer white stockings; the black-haired vixen whose skirt is see-through up to her thighs; and the white-collared business-man who buttons down his shirt to perform topless gymnastics over a wheelchair. There is a broad menu of kinks to suit a variety of sexual appetites, and the show definitely gets racy. At one point, a male acrobat gets completely naked, and a busty cabaret singer croons a sad tune, "Everybody's Fucking But Me."
Proving either that New York City parents are very open-minded or that hapless out-of-towners stumbled upon the wrong show, a few families could be seen in the crowd with their small children. Complete with audience participation, La Vie is not for the shy or inhibited. During the performance that I attended, the emcee called upon a man to interpret his makeshift Rorschach test, and when he wasn't satisfied with the answer, asked "someone with imagination" to give it a go.
More than a tasteful platform to display T & A, La Vie entertains with intelligence, nuance, and variety. Spoofing the show's name, the emcee explains that "La Mort didn't test well." One scene takes place at customs at an airport, and the Montreal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main skewers the excesses of our national security by having a would-be passenger strip down to his skivvies and belt out in frustration, "Welcome to America!" They have an impressive range of acts, including trapeze, juggling, spinning, and musical compositions created with wine glasses, clay, and other unconventional instruments.
It takes guts for a circus troupe to perform a show about death. Existential meditations and high flying acrobats don't usually fit on the same bill. Maybe they ought to more often. In any event, La Vie is a rare opportunity to witness a blood transfusion bag used as a flying trapeze, or a performer fail to bow at a curtain call after his EKG flat lines. It's an even rarer chance to see real theatrical danger (in the best sense of the word) take place in an otherwise sanitized Seaport.