The most powerful aspect of Slava’s Snowshow, the mime-circus-theatrical extravaganza running through Aug. 25 at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is not its many fantastic images and theatrical tricks, marvelous as they are.
The real wonder is how it can rivet an audience like the one that filled the center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House Thursday night with the simplest human moments — a clown’s expressively waggling eyebrows or an ancient comic bit in which one person silently stalks another. Even in an era (and a show) of overwhelming multimedia, the human factor reigns supreme.
Snowshow was created in 1993 by the Russian clown and mime artist Slava Polunin. The most powerful presences of his childhood in a tiny northern Russian village, Polunin has said, were the winter snow that towered three times his height and classic silent-movie clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Decades later, he animated Slava’s Snowshow with a sense of human absurdity and poignancy amid a world of wonder and terror.
The piece has been touring internationally since its creation, including a 2008 run at the Arsht Center. Polunin no longer performs in his masterwork; the central role of the Yellow Clown, taken by Artem Zhimo on Thursday, is played by one of eight performers including the creator’s son, Vanya Polunin. (The senior Polunin’s granddaughter Mia, 8, appears several times as a tiny, determined yellow clown in training.)
The show surrounds classic clown and mime set pieces — no less effective for being decades or even centuries old — with surreally beautiful, sometimes ominous, stage effects. Showers of paper snow fill the stage and the theater. Dreamlike moments — a glowing orange globe on a dark stage; a long-nosed, birdlike figure swinging through the air; towering, stage-framing blue panels rotating to turn it into a pillowy white and muffled world — are often followed by blasts of sound and light, wonder suddenly overwhelmed by dread.
The score is precisely calculated to underline the show’s theatrics, whether the pomposity of the Chariots of Fire theme for a scene of exaggerated slow-motion desperation on a bed-boat on the high seas or the orchestral explosion as a storm fills the theater.
Caught in all this is the Yellow Clown, as grimy Little Tramp, a kind of cosmic schlemiel. He’s alternately pathetic — his stubble-shadowed face, painted mouth and shadowed eyes drooping like a depressed spaniel — and defiant, waggling a broom at an unseen enemy, determinedly sweeping up the endless snow.
His adversaries, comic foils and companions are the Green Clowns, galumphing figures in oversized green coats and bizarre hats with ear flaps that spread like stiff wings. They stalk or interrupt the Yellow Clown with deliciously crude antics.
The performers bring the show physically into the audience several times. To describe how would spoil the surprise that helps make these moments effective, even breathtaking. But the wild moments that end Snowshow had Thursday’s audience, from children to adults, playing and shrieking with delight.