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Backstage in Las Vegas, a cirque du risque

Aerialists, contortionists and clowns let loose and try out new acts -- sometimes bawdy -- at the Square Apple bar, a creative outlet for artistic risk-takers.

October 09, 2009|Ashley Powers

LAS VEGAS — The clown had a conundrum.

Sure, he had scored an enviable role in a Las Vegas Strip extravaganza, giving him the chance to wow a well-heeled audience and secure the Holy Grail of entertainment -- a steady paycheck. After the cast of "Le Reve" took its nightly bow, however, there wasn't much in town to satisfy Amos Glick's artistic soul.

In New York and Los Angeles, performers seeking creative outlets have an embarrassment of options: poetry readings, performance art, guerrilla theater. Not so much in Las Vegas. Though the number of entertainers here dwarfs that of larger cities -- the Cher impersonators alone could pack a convention hall -- Vegas grew big before it grew up.

Support for the arts? Minimal. Stages willing to showcase unpolished acts? Very few. Magicians, aerialists and contortionists can earn a living in a showroom, but have few outlets akin to comedians' open-mike nights where they can test new material or just let their hair down.

Save the occasional post-midnight party where they performed for fellow performers, the Strip's non-marquee talent recreated the same routines night after night after night. So Glick dreamed up a solution.

Welcome, folks, to the "OK, OK, the amos glick variety show." (Adult supervision recommended.)

::

"Raise your right arms, clutch your buttocks and throw monkey poo!"

Sean Kempton, 38, Glick's friend and fellow clown and tonight's MC, is rallying the dozens of young, lithe creatures packed into the smoky Square Apple bar. Many scrubbed off their stage makeup but a few hours ago, and headed east of the Strip to this downtown hangout near hole-in-the-wall Asian eateries and a fetish shop with its own theater.

On this sultry August night, at 12:20 a.m., the crowd is primed for Kempton's bawdy humor. The seating is so cramped, the stage so small, that it's like telling dirty jokes to a dinner party.

When the left side of the room finishes pretending to toss monkey poo, Kempton turns to the right. His red-sequined jacket gleaming and an impish grin spreading across his face, Kempton asks the audience to mime something else.

We can't print that something here, but the audience responds enthusiastically. Kempton and his wife, Michaela O'Connor, a 35-year-old aerialist, have helped Glick nurture his variety show for about a year. This tiny stage is where Kempton learned that his skit about getting trapped in a rocket ship and needing to urinate cracked up the audience, but his riff on speed-walking bombed.

That's the value of experimenting before a live crowd. "I could see why it didn't hit," he says, "so it was very successful even though I failed."

The mega-productions offered on the Strip tend to showcase breathtaking precision and daredevil stunts, but few artistic risks. "Avenue Q," a musical with sex between puppets and tunes such as "The Internet Is for Porn," won several Tony Awards but closed at Wynn Las Vegas after nine months. "Hairspray," whose leading lady is a man in drag, lasted less than four at the Luxor.

Since the opening of "Le Reve," also at Wynn, some of the darker and stranger elements of the aquatic production have been scrapped. Out: the female divers with fake baby bellies. In: ballroom dancers choreographed by a guy from "Dancing With the Stars."

At the Square Apple, by contrast, envelope-pushing is embraced. At past shows, a contortionist named Lady Labella twisted herself into new pretzels, and a man donned a lucha libre mask for a comedy routine (though Glick quashed his efforts to mix balloons and sex jokes).

Tonight, two straight-faced male gymnasts, in gold makeup and gold Speedos, do a balancing act that includes suggestive poses they could probably never get away with on the Strip. The audience howls.

--

Not long after Kempton gives the audience more unprintable commands, Glick, 42, bounds onto the stage in a white tuxedo and black bow tie reminiscent of his clown costume in "Le Reve."

Glick moved here in 2007 from San Francisco, where he had performed in political comedy and improv groups. He arrived with a six-week contract for "Le Reve" and no guarantee of an extension. "What a great little adventure," he thought.

Since then, Vegas has grown on him, though frustratingly. There wasn't really anywhere he could tinker with new routines.

"Every performer needs an outlet," he recalls thinking. "Like, 'I'm an acrobat and I'm going to sing a song.' You need to try out things and see where the audience goes nuts."

So one night, after watching a friend who had been in Cirque du Soleil's "O" play her cello at what's now the Square Apple, he asked the managers about hosting his own variety show. (He came up with the name under duress -- a local reporter was demanding one and Glick responded with, "OK, OK!")

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