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Raunchy ‘Absinthe’ doubles as Cirque parody

Sometimes, it's all in the context. And the dirty jokes.

To describe much of what happens on the tiny stage of "Absinthe" won't sound so different for folks who have seen a few shows around town.

The two sculpted dudes who do the hand-balancing, manipulating themselves into muscle-bulging, gravity-defying positions? Seen it in "Mystere," have you? Or maybe even "V -- The Ultimate Variety Show"?

But it's different here. Really. Not so much the act itself; though, like a proud papa, producer Ross Mollison claimed opening night that the duo billed as Slava and Vanya twist themselves into more difficult positions than the others.

But everyone notices that "Absinthe" acts perform in the round on a 9-foot disc of a stage, surrounded by an audience on folding chairs. The low-tech set-up has an otherworldly charm, thanks to outside light filtering through stained glass in the big top, which is better known in Europe as a Spiegeltent.

One thing is certain. When the "Mystere" balancing is done, audience members aren't asked by a scuzzy ringmaster known as The Gazillionaire (Voki Kalfayan) if they are sexually excited. The Gazillionaire says it more like Andrew Dice Clay than with newspaper-scrubbed vagueness, as he imagines out loud how much both women and gay men must have enjoyed the show.

You expect this from a guy in a ruffled-shirt, disco-era tux. But it gets even raunchier -- and funnier -- when his cute little sidekick Penny (Anais Thomassian) gets carried away with a puppet show that suddenly makes "Avenue Q" seem very Red State.

"Absinthe" aims to elevate its formal entertainment to an interactive, nightclub level, though the show tent and peripheral drinking areas are more like a Prohibition speakeasy than the high-tech clip joints on the Strip.

The larger enterprise known as Spiegelworld first came together in New York, where the context was much different: It wasn't wedged amid seven Cirque du Soleils, and the Gazillionaire slinging words like "fag" was undoubtedly more transgressive to a theater-literate crowd than here, where Dice Clay himself is a regular draw.

But here, on this outdoor plaza in front of Caesars Palace, "Absinthe" also takes on a new subtext as a Cirque parody. And for a lot of us, it's about time.

The opening-night crowd -- including Cirque executives -- howled mightily when a couple billed as Ivan and Ivana Checkov-Jones (but looking suspiciously like Thomassian and a nearly naked Kalfayan in Howard Stern wig) did a sexually slapstick parody of the silk aerialist act we've officially seen too much in other shows and clubs.

Will civilians find it as funny? After all, you do need to be familiar with what's being parodied. Like Penn & Teller's comic magic, "Absinthe" is on one layer about show business, almost a "Level Two" for those who have covered the basics of live entertainment. Others who only buy a show ticket once in a blue moon might decide the shabby-chic aesthetic is simply low rent.

However, a few moments are great equalizers. The showstopper is a roller-skating couple billed as The Skating Aratas (Vittorio & Geniia). As he lifts her off the ground and spins her in a blurry whirlwind with her feet crossed behind his head, pulses quicken, and those in those primo chairs up front realize that now it's not just the performers who aren't safe. They're part of this, too.

That's the gritty carnival thrill "Absinthe" aims for, but only achieves a time or two with acts limited in variety by the staging; mostly balancing and trapeze bar. T he acrobats welcomely alternate with burlesque numbers which define the show's tone (including, starting April 19, a featured performance from "Holly's World" reality star Angel Porrino).

One exotic, Ede Atlas Muz, climbs inside a giant balloon to a piano arrangement of "Moon River." You know there's only one way she can escape. Slinky, singing chanteuse Melody Sweets gives the joint some retro class, transporting us to some decadent, faraway place that's not a tent in front of Caesars.

The atmosphere spills outside to the beer garden, so early arrival is a good idea. Theater-savvy or no, one sure way to make sure you get "Absinthe" is to make sure you have been drinking.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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