Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Banana Shpeel

Photos/OSA Images

Over the last twenty years, Cirque du Soleil has built up a well-deserved reputation for its agile theatrics. Though the visuals and themes are ever changing, the generally gymnastic aesthetic remains the same: exotic music will create a vibrant soundscape, lush colors will form the setting, and performers will leap, twirl, and hurl themselves across the stage. At heart, their best shows are death-defyingly simple. Not so, however, with the tarted-up Banana Shpeel, a gilded lily if there ever were one. Director David Shiner begs, borrows, and pretty much steals from his own work and presents a front-loaded show that's far too heavy on story and way too light in invention--pretty much exactly the opposite of what you'd expect of this "Clowns do Soleil" performance.

Daniel (Daniel Passer) and Wayne (Wayne Wilson) are the right and left hand men of Marty Schmelky (Danny Rutigliano), and along with the hilariously all-business Margaret (Shereen Hickman), they run the Schmelky Spectacular. But Schmelky's exaggerations quickly run him into trouble--he bills every act as the best thing he's ever seen--and he's soon consumed with the agita of three runaway clowns, the not-so-ordinary Claudio Carneiro (think a clumsier Jemaine Clement), the half-naked, high-pitched, lizard-like "modern dancer" Patrick de Valette (creepily hilarious), and the elderly mime Gordon White (actually a pretty spry fellow). Their antics are fine, if often derivative; they're disappointing mainly because they reduce the amount of time spent with the more polished, far more impressive acrobatics.

Clowns are a dime a dozen, especially in this show, but you're not likely to meet anyone who can spin and juggle dough-like fabric from their hands and legs -- let alone someone like Vanessa Alvarez, who can do as much while doing a headstand. If you're a fan of tap dancing, you'll see a masterfully synchronized pair in Josette and Joseph Wiggan; if you prefer to just watch ridiculous death-drops--or as Schmelky puts it, "the precarious balancing act that is love"--you can't ask for more than the millimeters Preston Jamieson and Kelsey Wiens shave off their human juggling. There's even some fancy hat juggling from Tuan Le, though he breaks the illusion of this being easy when he drops them. These acts are all show-stoppers in their own right: they don't need literal show stoppers between them.

Hampering Banana Shpeel further is the redundant second act: simply adding black light to a routine doesn't make it any more creative, especially if it's just a modern dance (or an "eccentric" one, as they bill it). There's also more tap dancing, a straight-up gymnast (Dimitry Bulkin), and a trio of contortionists who may be able to stretch themselves, but aren't exactly stretching the same-old-same-old-same-old act. The same can be said of David Shiner's clown routines, which are not only lower-key than those of the first act, but eerily reminiscent of those from Fool Moon. The finale, which lets loose a hail of confetti and banana-shaped balloons, is both gratuitous and a page out of the far-superior Wintuk's book. It should be mentioned, too, that this isn't quite a "family" show, what with the overt references to "making love" and the frequent uses of "bastard"; perhaps this is why clowns generally stick to gibberish.

Banana Shpeel is slippery in just about all the wrong ways, and even the parts that come together, like the Act I slapstick "magic act" finale, seem like accidents: Clowns Gone Wild. In terms of spectacles, there's normal theater, there's Broadway, and then there's the circus. By setting his signs on the broadness of Broadway, Shiner and his company simply haven't gone far enough, and one pities the talented acts that are swallowed up within the interminably mediocre (at best) acting.

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