Volume 19 • Issue 13 | August 11 - 17, 2006

Not your garden variety show
‘Absinthe’ opens at the Seaport’s Spiegeltent

Marc Marnie
I love my 501s: David O’Mer performs feats of strength in his sexy blue jeans.

By Nicole Davis

Last Saturday night, behind the former Fulton Fish Market at the South Street Seaport, producer Ross Mollison walked up and down Pier 17, trying to appease the crowd.

“Folks we’re running a little late. I’m sorry, it’s our second night, and we’re still working out the kinks.”

A couple hundred of us were waiting to enter Spiegeltent, a 19th century, European big top with colored glass windows and an art nouveau entrance. Mollison and Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of P.S. 122, have brought what they’re billing as “the world’s most beautiful traveling venue” to the Seaport for two months. Outside, we could hear the last act of the tent’s premier event, the one we were all waiting to see: “Absinthe,” a so-called “variety show on acid,” imported to New York from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was told they weren’t ready for the press — they were testing out three new performers. I was prepared for kinks.

So we stood a little longer than we would normally stand on line—for anything. Maybe we should get off, I suggested to my husband, but he disagreed, even though there were plenty of seats in the well-appointed beer garden set up beside tent, and the view was gorgeous. To our right lay the twinkling Brooklyn Bridge, and the silvery East River flowed seductively behind us.

Both are sights we rarely behold, because we rarely frequent a place as touristy as the South Street Seaport.

“Looks like a lot of out of towners,” Mike observed as we watched the first audience stream out of the tent. I objected—there were some local hipsters, too, I pointed out.

“Yeah, but the split is about 90-10. Seems like this may be a case where the idea is better than the reality.”

His enthusiasm was clearly flagging, but our moods lifted once we were invited inside. A cool, brightly lit fog obscured the circle-in-the-round stage. Around it radiated wooden chairs, and against the tent’s walls were velvet banquettes, and at the back, a brass bar. The structure was supported by dark wood beams, each inlaid with dozens of tiny mirrors, which I marveled at while Mike got us some cocktails, both reasonably priced by New York standards at $8.

Then, the lights dimmed, and our eyes adjusted to the silhouette of a woman sitting atop a piano, taking unlady-like gulps from a glass of red wine. The piano player began the first few chords of a crackly, Edith Piaf-like song as the brunette, her bosom boosted by a sleeveless, long black peasant dress, began to waltz around the stage in an intoxicated way, enchanting the audience with a carnivalesque song about carousels and calliopes.

She set the tone for this retro cabaret show, but was soon topped by two men in bowler caps and pin stripes suits. The chaps brought onto the stage with them a coat rack and a folded New York Times, their only props in an act that showcased their marvelous strength. The more straight-faced of the two squatted down, and began nonchalantly reading the paper as his wildly grinning friend maneuvered himself into a neckstand on the seated man’s shoulders, and lifted his legs into the air, where he kept them for an interminably long time. They performed more crowd-wowing contortions, and then for a finale, stripped down to reveal their rippled chests and boxer briefs, and angled themselves into some more unbelievable positions.

The two acts represented a recurring theme inside Spiegeltent, which Mollison has compared to the film, “Moulin Rouge.” Like the movie, the music in “Absinthe” is just as eclectic, ranging from Brazilian, Sergio Mendez beats to Parisian dance hall music. The female talent is also familiar. Aside from a cartoony woman in a vinyl red dress who performed inventive tricks of the knife-swallowing variety, the ladies here engaged in every activity you’ve ever seen a woman do inside a circus or cabaret: trapeezing, singing, hula hoping, and in one fantastic sequence that finished the first act, strip teasing.

It was this last woman who announced Spiegeltent’s subversive, guiding principal. Originally from Spain, she spoke in her native tongue to explain that everyone was welcome under this bawdy, decadent big top—“blancos y negros, carnívoros y vegetarianos, heterosexuals y homosexuales, pervertidos y transexuals.”

Indeed, I can’t imagine there was one straight woman or gay man in the audience who wasn’t smitten with the male performers, especially during the acrobatic act involving a bathtub, a buffed man, and blue jeans. The women may have been acting familiar parts in this salty Cirque de Soleil, but the men were just as sexy and amazing for a change. And in that, the producers have succeeded in bringing an alternate reality to New York – kinks and kinkiness all.

“Absinthe” runs nightly at 8 P.M., and 10 P.M. on weekends. Tickets start at $25. For more information, visit


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