Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Banana Shpeel

Growing up, while other kids wanted to be cosmonauts, firemen and policemen, my ambition in life was to be a clown. Hold off on the snickering for a moment (yes, I know some would say I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams). I am not talking clown as in Bozo. If I grew up watching Bozo I too might be scared of clowns. I am talking clown as in Oleg Popov. There was just something about him that spoke to me as a child. The world he lived in was wondrous and a little bit scary and his routines were full of whimsy and wonder. There was very little of the mean spirited in him. My mom even made me a Purim costume once with his trade mark floppy hat and bow tie. Its a fond memory.

The love of the clown led to a love of the Circus. Riga had a permanent Circus building and all of the greats of the time would sooner or later pass through it. Here too there is a world of difference between the circus of Ringling Brothers, for example, and the Circuses of Europe. American circuses seem to be more about spectacle and grandeur. Europe's circuses were more about artistry and performance. I never could get into the three ring circus. Too much information. Too many distractions. Not that the US lacks for alternatives. Big Apple Circus and even Chicago's very own Midnight Circus come to mind. But there is a distinct difference. Until Cirque Du Soleil come along. Still vividly remember the first show I saw by them (Allegria). I just couldn't stop enthusing. Haven't missed seeing too many opportunities to see a new show every time they come through town.

Not that everything they touch is perfect. Hated Zumanity. Burlesque is burlesque, but this wasn't even the burlesque of Cabaret. This to me was the burlesque of Cafe Flesh. Rather than sensual it was raunchy. And not in a good way. Cafe Flesh works in its own fashion (just don't ever watch it in a crowded theater with people expecting something completely different, but that's a blog for a different day). So when a friend pointed out that Cirque had a new show that they were previewing in Chicago in which they take on Vaudeville I was a little apprehensive. Will this be another Zumanity? Will they treat Vaudeville with some affection and reverence or will this be a broad farce? A dark satire of something which at its very core is already a parody of itself?

Banana Shpeel works. It works very, very well. I had the same thrill that I did the first time I saw a Cirque show. It treats the subject matter as it should be treated. It doesn't try to out do vaudeville, but retains its feel while updating it for the modern age. Whether its the shtick of the clowns, the dance numbers, the jugglers, the comedy bits, or the acrobatics, they all work. Well, okay. Not everything works. The bigger comedy bits fall flat. They probably sounded really good on paper and they might work on the screen where you have the luxury of editing and close ups, but live on stage they just become a bunch of people running around in chaos. Hopefully as the show moves to New York they'll work out the kinks. Either way, there's still a lot of Shpeel to like.

Dima Shine's balance act is just incredible to watch. Remember the China Olympics openning ceremony and the bit where that older man ran around the stadium walls while suspended by wires? Dima does the same thing while holding on to a spinning pole perfectly perpendecular to the floor without a single muscle quivering. No wires. Vanessa Alvarez puts a new spin (literally) on a traditional foot juggling act and Tuan Le does some very interesting things with hats.

The circus and the cirque are not for everyone, but for those of you who enjoy either one or the other I highly recommend the show. The Chicago run has unfortunately ended, but sooner or later its bound to come back around. Either that or show up as part of the ever expanding Cirque Vegas empire.