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.

No Circus This Year

An email arrived today from the Greatest Show on Earth, offering a discount on their VIP tix for the upcoming Chicago dates. Seems a little late in the game for such an offer, since the circus is already here in town. Perhaps they’re having trouble filling seats. Whether that’s the case or not, the family will not be headed down to the United Center this year, to take in the sights, explosions, and $17 popcorn.

This might be the first time in a decade that we haven’t gone to some sort of circus in the city. Most years it’s been Ringling Brothers, but Universoul Circus and Cirque de Soleil have also shown us a good time. And of course The Midnight Circus — whose directors/stars live on the next block down! — have always been a treat (though this year, their show in Wells Park was a rainout. Jonah’s luck!)

This fall, though, the schedule is too hectic to fit in another night when we can go. We’re already planning to see Cirque De Soleil’s new show Banana Shpeel next weekend. Add to that the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (a chestnut, sure, but the kids should see it once) and the new Addams Family Musical in January, and we will have blown our collective wad on theater for the holiday season.

Sorry Ringling, your show this year — “Zing Zang Zoom!” — while hard to type, looks pretty good. Anyway, the circus shouldn’t seem like an obligation, right? And anyway, I’m spending every morning in the circus of my brain, trying to figure out what the real secret is behind “Colonel Mars’ Congress of Freaks”, so I’ve had my fill of spangles and bombast.

But just to show there’s no hard feelings, here’s a picture of a bunch of clowns with a little boy. I don’t care if the kid is laughing or screaming — at least at the circus, you know you’re ALIVE, Junior!

New true/slant post up, FRESH!

Check it out, and if you’re curious about true/slant, browse around the site and tag me as a commentator you’re “following”. It’s the future, baby!!

GOP: Justice is more than NYC can handle

The announcement from Atty. Gen. Eric Holder that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other Guantanamo inmates would be tried in federal court was a strong statement of the primacy of the rule of law in this country.

Predictably, the GOP leadership hated it.

Me and the Berlin Wall

What an inspiring anniversary to celebrate this week. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic division between the vibrant, free West and the state-run, concrete-sculpted East. When the fall of the wall was covered on TV, my reaction was multifold:

1. They’re doing WHAT with sledgehammers? Yay!
2. Why is this happening now?
3. What in the world took so long?
4. Does this really mean the end of the Cold War, or will Germany be the sole beneficiary of this boldness?

And then the most important question of all:

5. How can I joke about it?

This month in 1989 was the third month I had been doing a weekly cabaret called “Theater of the Bizarre”, in the lower level of the Elbo Room (which somehow is still there at Lincoln and George, hosting musicians I’ll never learn about in my middle-aged life). The show needed a little time to find an identity, but Nick the owner was a very good guy, liked what we were doing and open to using the lower level of the restaurant in different ways. My friend Steve Ginensky had asked me to help him get this show going, the only time anyone had ever outright asked me to perform onstage. So, for that compliment, I was grateful.

“Theater of the Bizarre” was hosted by a black-clad Euro-trash art casualty named Armando von Shtuppenvald, accompanied on piano by his lacky Pepe. We smoked, wore berets and wrap-around sunglasses, had bored German accents — think of Mike Myers’ Dieter character, but actually funny. For a while Steve and I swapped these roles — usually during the show — by swapping Armando’s iconic chin beard. After a few months, though, the novelty of this wore thin, as did the amusement of me trying to play anything on piano. (My lousy piano-playing did, however, give us our theme music. Butcher the song “Konnen Sie Der Muffinmeister” well enough and it takes people a while to realize you’re singing “Do You Know The Muffin Man”.)

And with the fortuitous Fall of the Berlin Wall, we were propelled into a two-year run of the show.

The fall of the wall and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t happen overnight, we sometimes forget. It took about 20 months for the latter to occur, and in that time, we were able to milk people’s attention to Germany for all it was worth.

One of my bits was a box of “Cut-out Dolls of the Communist Party”, a kit that allowed you to dress up Deng Xiao Peng as Jobba the Hut and Fidel Castro as a Cuban infielder and a big-band leader. For the president of East Germany (a position that went through a lot of occupants before disappearing completely), instead of changing clothes, I rotated the head, from Erik Honneker to whoever replaced him, to Werner Klemperer, to Arte Johnson in his “Verrrry interestink” outfit. In the picture below, you can see me with the cutouts, while Pepe reads from our book “Kafka fur Kinder.”

And when the rest of Europe began to fear the power of a unified Germany (yeah, it had been a rough century whenever Germany got rambunctious), Steve as Pepe penned one of our best song parodies, to the tune of “We Are The World”:

There comes a time, when you have to forge ahead,
Even though, you don’t know, what you’re doin’…
You’ve got Roseanne und E.T., Disneyland und MTV,

We are the World! We are the Germans!
Our men are strong, our women look like Edgar Bergen!
Uber alles said and done, we just want to have some fun….

At which point, Armando would always interrupt from offstage and go into a tirade about his going off the leash, only to be soothed when Pepe began to tinkle “Alley Cat” on the keyboard. It was a grand good silly time, and during “Theater of the Bizarre” I made a lot of good friends. I also got the idea for “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories”, but we can’t blame the Germans for that.

So, you know, it’s great that 20 years ago, millions of people began to throw Communism and their oppressive leaders out the window. Kudos. But much more importantly, it gave us lots of topical material. For that, Steve and I will be forever grateful.

Fall is Time for Hard Cider

Came across a nice article today at The Paupered Chef, about making hard (alcoholic) cider at home. If you’re looking for a fun, harvest-time, inexpensive food project, this is the ticket. It’s easy and inexpensive, and you can use any type of cider you find, either from the store, the orchard, or the farmer’s market.

I’ve made hard ciders a few times in the past, but they came out very very dry. Champagne seemed like water by comparison, and I’m not a huge fan of bubbly. Nick, the Paupered Chef, ran into this problem too, because whaddya know? He was using champagne yeast! On a lark, he experimented with lager yeast instead. Huzzah! Why didn’t I think of that? I was too skeered to deviate from the recipes, I guess, but I’m wiser now. Brewing is just cooking that takes a little longer to taste the results, so why not experiment? Anthony Bourdain ain’t coming to your brunch, no matter how many times he says he is.

In the comments section, a reader lays out a big cider recipe including brown sugar, cinnamon, and corn sugar. Don’t know how it will come out, but I admire his DIY ambition. Another reader also sticks up for us home-brewers when someone makes a snide remark about brew-nerds. Hey, few things in life are better than homemade beer and cider. It’s cheaper, it’s homemade, it’s fun, and you don’t pay taxes on it. What’s not to love?

A Poem for All the Skittish Yankee Fans

I wrote and posted this one yesterday on Bardball, but kinda forgot to post it here. What’s this place for, if not to pimp and flog?

And for all the Yankee haters out there, please check out this interesting post from “Pitchers and Poets,” entitled “Frickin’ A-Rod: How I Learned to Stop Wallowing and Grudgingly Support the Yankees.” I have to say, my animosity has been tempered too. Winning a World Series once a decade is a pretty good average, I think.

Just Hold On Til Mo

When your son asks you advice on mascara,
When your head’s a-flame and your mouth’s a Sahara,
When that small, still voice inside prattles like Berra–
I’ve got two words:
Mariano Rivera.

When you’re uprooted and force-marched to some terra
Incognita, a dark, doomed hell where a perky Sarah
Palin is president and not just a chimera–
I’ve got two words:
Mariano Rivera.

When you yearn for escape and consider hara-
Kiri–Breathe deep, relax, don a fresh guayabera,
And watch the greatest hero since Before the Common Era–
He’ll bless you and keep you:
Mariano Rivera.