There’s something special about seeing shows in the round, as opposed to facing performers the way you would in a regular theater or at the opera. The arrangement seems to add a 3-D effect, as if providing extra depth to our sense of vision. Suddenly we’re not mere spectators anymore, but potential participants. This is particularly acute at the seasonal spiegeltent that, for the past three years, has been erected right next to South Street Seaport (and the old Fulton Street fish market) in downtown Manhattan. The venue’s name comes from the Flemish term for “tent of mirrors”—and that’s exactly what it is. The hard-shell venue looks like a transplant from the 1920s (when its kind became popular in continental Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Belgium), which helps enhance the feeling of the audience being cut off from its pedestrian 2008 reality. Booths ring the outer perimeter, but clearly the place to be is on one of the chairs that surround the tiny stage. When the performers strut their stuff, you’re so close that you can see every little drop of perspiration on their brows, and almost feel their breath. And in the case of roller-skating duo the Willers, spinning at high velocity a mere inches from your head, it’s hard not to recoil in fear of getting hit by an errand wheel. Sorry, but you just can’t get that kind of physical thrill on YouTube.While the New York spiegeltent puts on a variety of events, its marquee attraction is Absinthe, which combines acrobatics, song, burlesque and comedy—and the aforementioned Willers, whose routine is completely demented in its old-fashioned-carny, single-minded approach. Absinthe constantly toes the thin line between high and low, both literally and figuratively: There’s circus feats and sexy va-va-voom, all tied together by the hijinks (or is that lojinks?) of an MC that goes by the name the Gazillionaire.
A New York Times review described the Gazillionaire as “an updated take on Joel Grey’s leering M.C. in Cabaret,” but I think that’s actually a bit misguided. First, the character isn’t an update of anything—he’s defiantly retro. Second, what he does is not so much a rendering of divine decadence but a mix of the bawdiest Catskills humor with the sex-based offense of entertainers in the burlesque houses evoked in Gypsy, when hosts had to keep patrons boozed up between sets of whirling tassels. Because the Gazillionaire and his assistant, Penny, move about the crowd, there’s constant physical interaction with the public, whether said public wants it or not. And unlike YouTube, you just can’t press the “stop” button when the Gazillionaire thrusts his well-stuffed crotch in your face. More than the actual performances, it’s intimacy and closeness that are the essence of the show—the artists even have to make their way through the audience to get to the stage, so the usual divide between “us” and “them” becomes interestingly porous.
Of course, spiegeltents are keeping alive a specific type of burlesque circus spirit, but the impetus to have audiences surround performers in order to achieve unparalleled connections knows no borders. Venues such as the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris are popular both among performers and viewers for the unique experience they provide, and it’s no wonder that even mega-pop stars often play arenas in the round. Would I have enjoyed seeing Shania Twain at Madison Square Garden as much if she had played a conventional stage instead of in the round? Maybe not—what was memorable was watching her constantly run about so that each section got to see her close (well, sort of—we’re still talking about an arena here) at one point or another.