Some Mushy Spots in “Banana Shpeel”

Last night the family and I took in the new Cirque de Soleil show at the Chicago Theater, “Banana Shpeel.” I bought the tix months ago, on a whim, when I first heard about it. Worth a gamble, it seemed.

The verdict: Still worth a gamble.

A friend in town–a PR pro in the arts–said last week on Facebook that the show wasn’t worth going to, even if someone gave you the tix for free. This was a refreshing honesty about the source of ducats, I thought, but it aroused fear and dread about what I’d really see for my hard-earned dollars. (And this being Cirque de Soleil, you KNOW there’s a pile of dollars involved.)

All in all, the show was pretty good. Stupid in a lot of parts, but often the good kind of stupid. Some performers were great, but some were basically expendable. (The big story of the show is how it jettisoned a couple of characters last month because their parts were written out. Well, one player was given credit in the program for appearing as a Pierrot. There were even pictures of him, in his whiteface and baggy white pajamas, trying to get all zany with a butterfly net. A Pierrot in vaudeville? Now THERE’S a shoot that needed clipping a long time ago.) Unfortunately, the question that remained after seeing it was, what were they doing for so many months of rehearsal (and actually years of planning)?

It seems like the problem lies in the vaudeville format itself. A variety show strung together by a flimsy storyline–sounds familiar. Sounds doable. Sounds like a platform to take things to the next level, like the troupe says it intends to do in all its promos. To fault it for that seems churlish. But when intermission arrived after 60 minutes, a slight twinge of unsatisfaction arose in me. Not DISsatisfaction, which is a real word. UNsatisfaction. Like being promised a sandwich, and being served some turkey loaf on Pepperidge Farm bread.

Luckily, the second act was better than the first, with a couple of superb circus acts: A woman who juggled large fabrics on all of her limbs, and a gymnast who twisted and writhed around what looked like a simple lamppost. These were acts that brought wondrous smiles to a spectator’s face, and brought the show up a notch.

For all the people who are curious to see it because they have an abiding interest in vaudeville, clowning and variety acts of all kinds, I say go ahead and see it. The dancing and music was very good, the circus acts were great, and the clowns in general were very good. Could it gel more, or is it doomed to be three shows in one? Time will tell.

I haven’t seen a Cirque show in more than a decade. I remember seeing three in a row, starting with “Saltimbanco”, which blew me away. Then, like Mel Brooks movies, each new one was exactly half as entertaining as the preceding one. With all the smoke machines, annoying new-age music, and ponderous and pompous pacing, the whole thing became tedious. Kind of like Doug Henning once again telling his audience to believe in **wonder!**, the Cirque began to pale against real circus shows, where the players didn’t believe in their own artistic ambitions but just got on with the business of being showmen.

Make no mistake, the circus relies on ballyhoo and hokum, but those are distinct from bombast and hype.

I wish the company lots of luck with “Banana Shpeel.” It’s always good for clowning to have exposure in legit venues. In these tight economic times, however, audiences might start to grumble that they’re not getting their **Wonder Quotient**. It was like years ago, when I ushered at the Goodman Theater’s production of “The Comedy of Errors,” starring the zany jugglers The Flying Karamazov Brothers. One old lady at the matinee came up to me at intermission and angrily complained, “That’s nothing but vaudeville in there!” Hey, no one said it was anything but.

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