What shocks in 2015 America?
Absinthe does—but not for its tit, dick and fuck jokes. (Don’t feign shock at that sentence or your nose will grow, forcing me to joke about snorting Viagra.)
Marking its fourth anniversary at the Caesars Palace Spiegeltent, the production presenting itself as part-circus/part-hallucinogenic head trip/part-hand-down-your-pants-and-up-your-skirt carnal comedy is in a peculiar position: Its calling card is to shock audiences that become less shock-able by the day.
At least on the sex-shock scale. Political incorrectness is where its greatest shock value now dwells.
Looking through a longer lens, Absinthe, for all its bizarro brio, now feels vaguely rote. Partly, that’s likely the grind of the years for a show trying to be aggressively in your face every night. Still, even with the raunch-mouthed host characters of the skeezy Gazillionaire and his sweetly twisted sidekick—originally named Penny Pibbets, and now called Joy Jenkins, billed as Penny’s cousin—the energy level has taken a modest but perceptible dip. Once it felt startling and fresh. Now it feels perfected and a bit mannered.
Though the up-close acrobatics, aerial stunts, skating feats and specialty acts that comprise the bulk of Absinthe are still gawk-worthy spectacles, they’re more or less de rigueur in Sin du Cirque City. And the sex element? “Green Fairy” Melody Sweets still oozes sensuality. Still, when she enters after the stacked-chair-climbing routine, admiring the “wonderfully large erection” and quipping, “What’s a girl to do with all this wood?” it sounds like every other sniggering sex joke on the Strip. So do the adolescent teases of male frontal nudity and audience lap-dance challenges.
That’s high school stuff for patrons who’ve arrived at Absinthe after watching pay-per-view porn or just the soft-focus screwing on Cinemax in their rooms. The larger American culture won the Titillation Wars. Even other live-show sex-capades—say, the dry-humping actors of 50 Shades! The Parody or the orgasm-moaning masochist-aerialist in Zumanity—outdistance Absinthe.
Which leaves the rawest exposed nerve in 2015 America—political incorrectness—as the riskiest frontier. At this, Absinthe is still refreshingly bold.
What kept me alert at Absinthe was the Gazillionaire calling an Asian woman onstage and teasing her with a ching-chong-ching-chong accent. And expressing surprise that a Mexican man made it past airport screeners since he must have been a drug mule. And looking over at middle-aged, white male “Republicans” and cracking wise about shooting unarmed black men in the street. And referring to “carpet-munching” lesbians.
Outside of the likes of Brad Garrett and the seemingly eternal, bulletproof Don Rickles—who’ve built up decades of goodwill to inoculate themselves against backlash—this is chancy territory. In a nation where advocacy groups for every conceivable racial, ethnic, religious and sexual-orientation community hunt for the heads of anyone who misspeaks on Twitter and Facebook—demanding apologies, confessions, contrition, retractions, public blackballing and the destruction of careers—this takes brass balls.
Equal offensiveness under the big-top Spiegeltent—it’s the great human leveler.
Laughing at sex isn’t unusual. Laughing at ourselves has become exactly that.
Got an entertainment tip? Email Steve.Bornfeld@VegasSeven.com.