Master clown Slava Pulonin is famous for bringing out the "child" in every grown-up, and he did that very well on Friday night.
Looking around the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater during the finale of Slava's Snowshow, everyone was on their feet, hands in the snow-filled air, heads tipped back laughing, as they stretched to get their fingertips onto one of the enormous balls bouncing overhead. Onstage, the clowns were joining in the fun, rolling the huge colorful spheres into the audience where they were quickly caught up and boomphed from one pair of hands to the next.
The clowns themselves were some of the strangest and most mischievous I'd ever seen. Dressed in shabby green coats, they had long black feet and black-rimmed eyes that stared out from beneath grayish purple hats that flipped and flopped as they galloped around the stage. And they didn't confine their antics to the stage. During a rollicking intermission, they made themselves quite comfortable in the audience-climbing over the backs of chairs and onto people's laps, spraying water from bottles inverted on top of umbrellas, pelting the audience with balls of paper that exploded into showers of snow.
As the paper flakes thickened on seats and floor, you could hardly resist scooping up a handful and tossing it at your seatmate. The dusting was just a preview of what was to become heaps of paper by the end of the evening - in fact, I'm still finding "snow" that somehow made its way into the depths of my purse.
But all the staging and effects aside, the best part of the show was Slava himself. With almost half a century of clowning under his baggy belt, he has perfected the smallest movements to bring a sweet, funny sadness to his character of Asisyai. Just the lift of his eyebrow or shrug of his shoulders could make the audience laugh or sigh.
Almost as funny as Slava was his sidekick, a little red-haired clown wearing a matching shapeless yellow suit and fuzzy red slippers, who tried hard to emulate the old clown. The two were in perfect rhythm with each other, with the little clown eliciting "awww"s from the audience every time he'd shrink in shame after a rebuff from Slava.
The show has been described as "dreamlike," but there were a few moments that were more nightmarish - a ragged procession of silhouetted clowns wearing angel wings and carrying lanterns; the little red-haired clown shot through with arrows in elaborate (though humorous) death throes; spooky images of a child on a rocking horse, a girl in white on a swing, a clown knitting in a corner.
Some of the show's segments seemed a bit dated (it's been touring internationally for 15 years)-such as when two clowns rode a bed onstage in slow motion to the "Chariots of Fire" theme song; or when Slava created a gibberish conversation between two big stuffed telephones - but they still retained their charm.
The most powerful scene was Slava's moving embrace with an empty coat. A few snowflakes fell on the stage as Slava slowly unpacked a black coat and hat from a shabby, oversized suitcase. He hung them up on an empty rack, and suddenly the coat came alive, with a hand emerging from the sleeve to caress the clown. As Slava snuggled into the coat's embrace, the strange moment embodied so much loneliness and longing that our laughter almost turned to tears as we watched.
But for most of the show, we were laughing and playing-like when the clowns dragged a giant spider web over the audience, and we reached our hands up to seize the sticky strands. And of course, when the blizzard finally came at the end.
As loads of paper snow were dumped onto the stage, the jet engines went to work and blew the flakes straight out into the audience in a burst of white light and thundering "Carmina Burana."
We whooped and hollered, and threw snow at each other, and generally behaved like children.
Which, after all, was exactly the point.