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‘Absinthe’ goes zombie, but this show is very much alive

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Penny Pibbets and The Gazillionaire put on their grateful dead act at the “Absinthe” after-party at Pure in Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.
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Kats with the Dish
Melody Sweets unveils the new number "Up All Night" in the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

Melody Sweets unveils the new number "Up All Night" in the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

The Gazillionaire and Penny Pibbets banter at long distance during the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

The Gazillionaire and Penny Pibbets banter at long distance during the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

Skaters Sven and Roma perform during the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

Skaters Sven and Roma perform during the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

The Gazillionaire and Spiegelworld founder Ross Mollison relish the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" during a post-show party at Pure in Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

The Gazillionaire and Spiegelworld founder Ross Mollison relish the 1,000th performance of "Absinthe" during a post-show party at Pure in Caesars Palace on Thursday, March 28, 2013.

Melody Sweets performs during the Wednesday, March 28, 2012, performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace.

Melody Sweets performs during the Wednesday, March 28, 2012, performance of "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace.

At the end of Thursday night’s 1,000th performance of “Absinthe” at Caesars Palace’s Roman Plaza, a woman’s scream emanated alarmingly from backstage.

It was the plaintive wail of Melody Sweets, who shrieked and fled into the audience, circling the wooden hall while screaming that someone was determined to do her great harm. The show’s Green Fairy was bloodied, or seemed to be, and apparently terrorized. Giving chase was the diminutive but dangerous Penny Pibbets, herself scabbed in red. The two pin-balled around the audience, climbing over chairs and banging into audience members.

This act of high theatrics led to a steam of “Absinthe” cast members staggering around the tented theater. They wore tattered white clothes streaked with crimson, their faces smeared with gothic makeup.

That was how “Absinthe” marked No. 1,000, as zombies. It was fun to watch them have so much fun — “Absinthe” cast members know no other way to perform than to inhabit their characters entirely. Pibbets in particular seemed to relish the zombie character. After the show I reached out to shake her hand and she bit me, which, come to think of it, would not be entirely out of character for Pibbets at any time.

But even as the cast partied up, zombie-style, into the early morning hours at the “Absinthe” tent and later at Pure nightclub, it was not the best depiction of the production.

A zombie is, by definition, a walking-but-dead entity. “Absinthe” is not that.

Since opening in the spring of 2011, the ruthlessly adult, relentlessly adventurous circus show continues to expand and improve. It is tighter and more efficiently paced than the early days, when it was wheeled out in its original, temporary tent that was supposed to be the production’s home for just six months. Today, the show co-produced by Ross Mollison’s Spiegelworld and BASE Entertainment is in an open-ended agreement to perform at Caesars.

But the security of that commitment has not at all deadened the spirit of the show. There are small moments that add up to a general tightening, and increased confidence, in “Absinthe” performances. Angel Porrino is actually a more adept tap-dancer than she was when she joined the cast to perform in the confounding-but-laughable balloon scene. When Fat Frank (spoiler alert!) strips to his green G-string at the end of the show, fans are no longer entirely shocked. Some have even taken to handing him dollar bills to tuck into his undergarment as he sprints through the audience.

The risk factor in the show has never been greater. The danger of the Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire act is reflected in cables stretching high across the theater to protect fans from being conked on the head by falling balancing poles (that happened once, if you recall). Some audience members sitting close to the stage, which is still just 9 feet in diameter, vacate their seats during the spinning act of skaters Roma Hervida and Sven Rauhe, lest they chance being clipped by the couple’s wheeled footwear.

Many of the performances, especially the chair-balancing act opening the show and a new aerialist number that incorporates simulated rainfall, take place high above the stage. The wear and tear on the cast is always a concern, too. One of the show’s balancing artists, Michal Furmanczyk, recently missed six weeks with shoulder and back ailments (Furmanczyk, of course, is known as “Misha 10 Pack” and therefore must be stopped).

Penny and Gazillionaire are as sharp as ever. The Pibbets Puppet Show, which begins with her calling out, “Thank you, therapy!” is always halted at the precisely appropriate moment by Gaz leaping into the act as the simulated sex act turns violent and unsettling. Penny and Gaz have finally found a happy medium in their “Caesarean Ballet” segment. For a time, Pibbets’ foot became caught in Gaz’s green Speedos and exposed him entirely. That “mishap” no longer happens, or hasn’t in shows I’ve seen over the past few months, ensuring the production won’t run afoul of hotel or state gaming regulations restricting onstage nudity or ancillary grossness.

The most obvious evolution in this show has been in Sweets’ growing role as a sort of third host, talking directly to the audience far more than at the time of the show’s opening. Her increased prominence is not coincidental. Sweets was in high demand a few months ago, in talks to be the vocalist in “Pin Up” at the Stratosphere before finally renewing her contract with “Absinthe.” Since, she has released a very sharp, brash and polished CD, “Burlesque In Black,” and is hooking music from that CD into the show.

A new scene performed to “Up All Night,” from “Burlesque In Black” debuted Thursday night. In the song, Sweets demands, maybe metaphorically, “Don’t beat around the bush, just give it to me straight!” She opens the scene while wearing a set of green angel wings, then strips to little more than lace and frills and ends the number by dipping into an oversized cocktail glass.

The show’s Green Fairy then closes in the most logical manner — by energetically thrashing around and spraying those seated in the front row with water.

This is no zombie performer, or lifeless performance. “Absinthe,” a death-defying production, is very much alive and kicking.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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