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‘Absinthe’ keeps its swagger in return to the Strip

Updated October 29, 2020 - 1:36 pm

“Absinthe” returned to the game packing a pair of aces Wednesday night, original artists from the show’s opening in April 2011. The creators of The Gazillionaire and Penny Pibbets characters, who introduced the raunchy circus show so many years ago, returned to reignite the self-described “VEGASHITSHOW” at Caesars Palace.

The comic performers’ names have been protected, over time. It’s something of a parlor game around the Vegas entertainment scene to know who they are. The couple stopped performing the characters years ago, but they return now and then when needed. We know them well by now, but also play along, for the purpose of the show’s return for its first performance since March.

Any question of how these two would address the show’s relaunch after the pandemic shutdown was clear in the opening 10 minutes. Wearing what looked like a fishbowl over his head, keeping with the show’s requirement for face covers, Gaz zeroed in on an unmasked woman in the audience.

“Put your mask on!” Gaz shouted, shaking some salt to his message. “You’re not hot enough to not wear a mask!” He added, “That’s not a bad percentage, one dumb (person) out of 150. We’ll take it.” In the new “Absinthe,” wear your mask or risk getting flayed.

Set up several feet away from Gaz, Pibbets slammed her snare and cymbal for a rimshot. Gaz’s long-suffering sidekick wore a giant, modified water bottle over her head as her face cover. “I can’t do this normal stuff! I’m feeling, like, crazy now! I just want to explode, ya know what I mean?” The crowd applauded, as if understanding.

Even scaled back, “Absinthe” was back. It’s the first large-scale production to perform since the Strip shut down in March. The show’s setup was couples or quartets at cabaret tables spread out 6 feet apart and, frankly, a little strange for those used to a packed house of 660. The stage was moved from its circular, 9-foot platform at the center of the tent to the deck facing the entrance.

Aside from a few exceptions, the show adhered to the notorious Entertainment Moat, the 25-foot divide between the stage and the audience. Only occasionally were performers close to the crowd. The Green Fairy entered, as usual, from high above the tent to the middle of the room. Ming Fang and Genevieve Landry, the lone aerial number in the show’s return, were in their usual spot at the center and over the audience.

Everyone onstage wore some form of face cover, beginning with the Green Fairy and an acrobat who opened the show in 2011, chair-stacker Maxim Popazov. During the COVID-19 pandemic, at least, face masks are becoming as prominent and relevant in Strip productions as headdresses were in the “Lido” days.

Stripping songstress Green Fairy sings through the mask to open the night, and in a really cool adjustment, Ming and Genevieve end their number with a kiss, masks be damned. Give credit to high-wire great Lijana Wallenda, also a costume designer for the show, for heading up the production’s nifty mask work.

Spiegelworld producer Ross Mollison has also changed the production by plucking talent from his two other shows, “Atomic Saloon Show” at The Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes and “Opium” at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Examples being the “Sexy Diablo” act from Opium’s Asher Treleaven (who also plays Captain Kunton in “Opium” and at one point accidentally referred to the crowd as “passengers”), and hula-hoop artist Ailona from “Atomic.”

But the opening show was absent several long-time faves, either through pandemic protocols or international visa issues.

An original act, body balancers Misha Furmanczyk and Lucasz Szczerba of Duo Vector, is scheduled to be back onstage next week. Tappers Sean and John Scott are still sidelined, as Mollison said, with masks interfering with the breathing in the high-energy act.

David O’Mer, the popular “Bathtub Boy” and a 15-year Spiegelworld star, is not permitted to perform his splashy act under current COVID-19 restrictions. Sibling roller skate tandem Billy and Emily England are out because Emily remains in the U.K. awaiting approval to the U.S. The four-woman Silicon Valley sway-pole troupe is still deemed too close to the audience. And the show’s low-wire “Frat Pack” act, a riveting show closer, has been out since several months before the pandemic.

Elsewhere, adjustments were required for such familiar scenes as the audience-participation lap dance competition. Instead of being brought onstage, couples were directed to participate from their seats. The gentleman to my left, masked and effectively tattooed, ground it down on his date. He lost to the male gay Black couple seated several tables away who rocked the tent as Gaz peered dozens of seats away.

The host also fired out some Black Lives Matter jokes, claiming that he didn’t want to inspire a protest, which sent an uneasy ripple through the crowd.

“Hey, I’m testing all of this out,” Gaz said, truthfully, delivering the material to a paying audience for the first time. “Are you guys smiling, under those masks? Yes? Thumbs-up? Those thumbs-up kinda looked like an F-U.”

But there was no tempering the show’s unbending, crude attitude. We remember when “Absinthe” opened in a temporary tent as a Strip underdog. The show has skewered the established Cirque du Soleil with the mock number from Ivan and Ivana Chekov-Jones, “Cesarean Ballet,” from the fictional Cirque show “Le Petite Merde” in Reno.

“Wait,” Gaz’s voice says over the tent’s sound system. “That show closed, too.” Later, as he and Pibbets perform Cirque-like performance art dance moves, Gaz says, “I call this, ‘Ode to Bankruptcy.’ ”

That’s what it’s come to for “Absinthe,” which arrived in Vegas as a brazen little circus show unafraid to satirize the Strip’s predominant production company. But during the pandemic, “Absinthe” is an industry leader for how shows (especially Cirque’s) can safely return to the stage.

Afterward, a tuxedo-clad but clearly weary Mollison said, “I’m just glad its over. This is not a celebration; it’s a start. Come back in a week and we’ll be different.”

But the show’s courage will remain unchanged. Once a plucky underdog, “Absinthe” is an inspiration in a pandemic, lifting live entertainment back to the Strip.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian and Palazzo.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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