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October 31, 2014

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Skating skirmish, too much anatomy raise eyebrows at returning ‘Absinthe’

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Leila Navidi

Melody Sweets and the Gazillionaire watch “Absinthe” from the side stage at Caesars Palace on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

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Backstage at 'Absinthe'

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Angel Porrino Debuts in 'Absinthe'

Angel Porrino in Absinthe at Caesars Palace on April 19, 2011. Launch slideshow »
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Penny Pibbets in "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on April 1, 2011.

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"Absinthe" tightrope performer Paul Matthew Lopez ices his shoulder while waiting to perform in the second show of the night at Caesars Palace on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

The new Spiegeltent at Caesars Palace appears so unassuming from the outside, a nondescript, eggshell-white domed structure that looks like it could serve as nothing more than a temporary storage facility.

But what happens inside, that’s another story.

The new, reinforced Spiegeltent has become a cauldron of mischief, unforeseen conflicts and wacky off-the-script behavior that has only enlivened the dirty/quirky/inspired circus show, “Absinthe.”

When “Absinthe” debuted in March, it quickly became a fan and media favorite for its manic pacing, profanely carefree humor and acrobatic acts that at once tantalized and mesmerized uninitiated audience members. It was expected that the production, housed in a 100-year-old wooden structure called the Spiegeltent, would run for only six months at Caesars Palace’s Roman Plaza. When the circus pulled up stakes and bugged out, it would leave behind colorful memories and hours of conversation. Post-mortem discussion about the show would far outdistance its time onstage, certainly

But “Absinthe” did return and staged a bolstered structure that would more effectively weather the weather and, most importantly, satisfy proper use permits issued by Clark County officials. But ever since “Absinthe” roared back on Oct. 21, the show has been the center of a number of eyebrow-raising developments, starting with a crossfire of allegations centering on the dazzlingly wheeled husband-and-wife act known as the Skating Aratas.

The Aratas -- veteran professional acrobatic skaters Vittorio and Geniia Arata -- have left “Absinthe” to join the rival David Saxe production “V -- The Ultimate Variety Show.” The act was vital to the success of “Absinthe,” as it was the most jarring, fear-inspiring performance in the production. The Aratas spun at such high velocity, with Vittorio gripping Geniia with a leather strap and whirling into a blur, the audience actually flinched and ducked during the showcase.

The act caught the attention of Saxe, a native Las Vegan and show producer since his teens, who subsequently brought them into his revamped “V” production. This deal was forged, Saxe says, as the Aratas were left wondering if they would have work at all in Las Vegas as “Absinthe” producers attempted to secure a new home for their show.

It seems simple, but it isn’t. The “Absinthe” team is accusing Saxe of “poaching” the skaters by showing up at Spiegeltent performances and luring them away from the show while they were still actively involved in the production. Poaching is a serious charge in the entertainment industry, tantamount to thieving an act or performer contractually bound to a competing show. On Friday afternoon, Saxe fired back by saying the Aratas were left open to move on as the future of “Absinthe” was unclear.

As he notes, the Aratas never signed a contract extension beyond their original six-month commitment to perform in "Absinthe" and fulfilled the length of that contract. Meantime, they signed with Saxe to perform in "V," a deal taking effect after their contract with "Absinthe" timed out. Any number of acts could have signed elsewhere as "Absinthe" sorted out its new venue and permit-approval issues at Caesars, Saxe says.

Saxe also is miffed at statements by officials at BASE Entertainment and Spiegelworld, the co-producers of “Absinthe,” that the Aratas are contractually forbidden to duplicate their spinning act in any production that is not “Absinthe” because the show -- not the performers -- own the choreography of that act. BASE Entertainment co-CEO Scott Zeiger has flatly stated that he wishes the Aratas well, but they cannot perform the act featured in “Absinthe” anywhere else.

But one thing about Saxe, and this is something he says he is not necessarily proud of, is he is well-educated about legal issues pertaining to production shows in Las Vegas. By his own estimation, he’s been involved in 50 lawsuits of all ilk (he was once sued by someone who was stuck in an elevator at V Theater who said he suffered from cancer and Multiple Sclerosis as a result of the incident), so the man does know how to plow through legal issues.

On this point, Saxe says he is certain “Absinthe” producers have no legal authority to prevent the Aratas from performing their act, or a version of it (and it will be modified when they debut in “V” within the week), on his stage. He has produced a copy of the Aratas' contract that states the following: "The Performers warrant that the Performers own the rights to their act in its entirety. Intellectual property of acts remains with the Performers." On its face, that does seem to indicate the Aratas own their act's intellectual property.

“They were performing this act before ‘Absinthe,’ ” Saxe says. “A lot of what they were doing was not directed or choreographed. The way they looked at each other at the end of the act, they came in with that. They came into ‘Absinthe’ with all of that act.” Saxe also is concerned that promotional material for the new run of "Absinthe" features images of the Aratas without the couple's consent and without specifying that the duo is no longer part of the production, which would be a contract violation and a clear case of brand confusion between "V" and "Absinthe."

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The Skating Aratas, shown during an appearance in "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace.

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Melody Sweets waits for her cue during "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

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Tony Hernandez practices his chair balancing on tightrope outside the tent during "Absinthe" at Caesars Palace on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

Saxe, too, is unhappy with statements made by Voki Kalfayan in an interview with my colleague Robin Leach, which Kalfayan conducted in his freewheeling Gazillionaire character. Speaking of "Absinthe" acts in general, Kalfayan-as-Gazillionaire said, “After six months with me, they’re hurt, worn out anyway. They may even be injured, so anybody is welcome to used goods. We own the actual act -- they may get the performer, but not the act we launched them with … so, frankly, I don’t know what they think they are stealing.”

Harsh stuff, sure. But that’s the Gaz for ya.

Of course, Kalfayan was speaking satirically in his stage voice, not as the in-fact producer of the show. But the feeling among BASE and Spiegelworld (fronted by headstrong Australian producer and self-described impresario Ross Mollison) that they own the skating act is very real. The duo replacing the Aratas in the show are the brother-sister skate team of Emanuel and Vanessa Medini, who have performed most recently in the German-based Circus Probst and are to be dubbed the Green Tornado in “Absinthe.” They are scheduled to start Dec. 3.

The Medinis are said to be the fastest skaters in the world, but, of course, the Aratas say they are the fastest, leaving open the tantalizing possibility of a spin-off as a way to settle this matter outside the court system.

As it awaits their skating act, “Absinthe” is further curtailed by the loss, temporarily, of the show-closing Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire act, for an unlikely incident that unfolded during Thursday night’s media performance. At the end of the routine where one Esteemed Gentleman hops from the shoulders of one performer to another, the leaping member of the troupe lost his footing and fell from the wire. He grabbed at the thin metal cord and adjoining platform used as a small stage for the performers and while doing so released his balancing pole.

That pole fell to the second row of the audience and caught Las Vegas musician, KNPR staffer and Las Vegas Weekly freelancer Chris Bitonti high on his head. Bitonti reached into his hairline and found blood, and the resulting cut required five staples to close (Bitonti, who is a drama-free sort, says he is fine). Chalk it up to cosmetic damage.

The show continued, with the Esteemed Gentleman finishing their act. But on Friday, the act was nowhere to be found, leaving a distinct gap in the performance. An internal investigation is under way to determine just what went awry, so the Esteemed Gentlemen are, at the moment, sidelined at least through the weekend.

In a statement issued today, producers said, “A thorough review of all safety systems and procedures occurs regularly, and an investigation is currently under way to determine the cause of the incident. The safety of our guests, as well as the safety of the production cast and crew, is the No. 1 priority of the show, and we wish the individual a speedy recovery. Performances of 'Absinthe' will continue as scheduled.”

What won’t continue, from Monday through Jan. 16, is Kalfayan’s portrayal of Gazillionaire. He’s leaving the show once more (he departed for a few weeks during its original run) to fulfill a contractual obligation to perform in Cirque du Soleil’s touring production, “Quidam,” where he performs pantomime as a comic clown. In Kalfayan’s place will be Matt Morgan, who portrayed Gazillionaire during Kalfayan’s first absence. Morgan’s dedication to his craft was evident after Friday’s 10 p.m. performance, as he mimed the role onstage for several minutes while in street clothes.

Before rejoining Cirque, Kalfayan has been at the center of yet another quirky dustup that might best exemplify the boundary-pushing spirit of “Absinthe.”

The madcap visual moment takes place during an awkwardly (and exceedingly adult-themed) choreographed act titled Caesarian Silk, performed by Kalfayan and Anais Thomassian (who co-stars as the great Penny Pibbets in the show). Thomassian allows her foot to slip into the neon green, sequined spandex briefs worn by Kalfayan. As Thomassian tries to work free, her foot exposes, almost totally, Kalfayan’s otherwise concealed body parts. This harried moment has become increasingly revealing since the show relaunched, and during Wednesday’s media show, Kalfayan stood for several seconds, totally exposed, before tucking back in. The crowd’s exasperated roar seemed to inflate the new tent.

Later, as Gazillionaire, Kalfayan exposed himself again and foisted himself on an audience member who had earlier described himself as a born-again Christian -- which seems to have been the wrong thing to say to Gazillionaire during this particular performance.

It all played for rowdy laughs, but afterward, inevitably, Caesars Palace officials told Gaz to cool it. Put it away, OK? On Friday, Gaz was back in good order and colored inside the lines.

It’s a noble quality, indeed, but one that the daredevil show that is “Absinthe” seems happily reluctant to achieve.

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

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