Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Now For Something Completely Different: Cirque Du Soleil Banana Shpeel

When I was a child, one of the things that I looked forward to most was going to the circus. I loved everything from the high wire acts to clowns squeezing into a small car to the trainer taming his lion to the motorcycles speeding about in the caged ball to fancily dressed women riding on top of the elephants to numerous other colourful acts. The circus had all the necessary ingredients for a night of escapism, and as a rather imaginative boy, it was an evening that totally played to my fantasies. As the years went on, the circus seemed to not remain a signature event in many people's calendars, thus the excursions there became rare. I think part of it was groups that filed against circus companies for their perceived acts of cruelty towards animals, or even the issue of how they went about acquiring exotic animals. The other issue was probably due to the fact there is lot of things that started popping up to compete for people's entertainment dollar including theatre becoming more accessible to several demographics (rather than just being the 'rich persons' choice of entertainment). Or maybe the circus never went anywhere, and it was just myself that stopped going as I aged.

It was two years ago when I saw Cirque Du Soleil's Kooza, and I was immediately swept away by its magic and pageantry. It was obviously the new era of the circus, while still containing several of the things that made the circus great. It eliminated the use of any animals, which in the modern time is pretty wise unless you want to be constantly visited by PETA and friends. It got rid of the '3 Ring' aspect where several different acts were going on at once, which created an environment of controlled chaos. Rather than just a show with a random assortment of amazing acts, it was now a much more organized presentation which had a theme and a show spanning storyline. It was a very different type of circus, but with 21 different shows being created since it was conceived in Quebec in 1984 (while being performed all across North America and other parts of the world), it has been a major success. The success of Cirque Soleil still has lot to do with what made the original circus a hit, which is the death defying acts and variety of entertainment. It does stand out as different because of the themes and storylines, but I doubt most people walk out of a performance chattering away about the deep story and cohesive themes (partly because they don't actually exist), but rather, it is the assortment of amazing acts that will long stick in the memory of the audience members. For Kooza, the storyline seemingly had something to do with a little boy who was flying his kite, but then some fat guy wanted to eat it or own it, then proceeded to try to convince the boy to give it to him by presenting various crazy performances. So yeah, it may not have been the most intricate tale (the fact they all speak gibberish makes the dialogue a little less than engaging), and rather, it was just a thin excuse to connect together the various performances. It worked because the story segments were short and colourful, and a nice lead in to the real meat of the show. This meat would be a grade A premium cut steak, which for any meat lover is a true delight. The show was filled with amazing acts such as the Wheel of Death (amazing!), balancing on chairs, Charivari, and numerous outstanding acts that I would do a disservice to by trying to describe. It was a show full of high risk and high skill, and something almost everyone was animatedly discussing after it was all over. It made me feel like a boy again, who was being swept away into a magnificent world of fantasy and wonder.

But that was Kazoo, and this is supposed to be a review of Cirque Du Soleil's Banana Shpeel. Just like Cirque Du Soleil was a twist on the traditional circus, this particular show was quite different than the previous Cirque Du Soleils. This show debuted in Chicago in December of 2009, and was immediately panned by critics and the public. The show then was rewritten and reworked when it entered into New York, but it did not receive very favourable reviews there either. It has since made some more cast changes and made a few more script/act adjustments, before making its third attempt by performing in Toronto. I actually did not know any of this when my wife informed me that there was a new Cirque Du Soleil show in Toronto, and that the tickets were going for 50% off (I actually, didn't even know we were getting discounted tickets). If I did know the tortuous road this show had taken, then I may have been less eager to snatch them up. At the time, I had visions of a show that would be very similar Kazoo, and had hopes of seeing the newest version of the wheel of death (maybe this time with a flaming fire pit below?). If I had read reviews or realized the tickets had been cut in half, then I may have been a little more wary of what I was about to watch.

I think, right there may be the biggest problem of why this version of Cirque Du Soleil has not been as successful or has been panned by many critics (though, in the defense of the show, it has been better reviewed in Toronto). People were expecting a show that was similar to the 20 previous versions. You see the name Cirque Du Soleil and you have certain expectations going in. Though, the first sign that this is something different (and which I should have clued in to) was that rather being performed inside a massive circus tent (which is where I saw Kazoo), it is being shown inside theatres (in Toronto it is the Canon Theatre). The venue makes it clear that you're not going to be able to have giant apparatus rigged up to the ceilings or be able to have the same type of room to do hire wire acts. Of course, even though the venue should make this obvious, part of you just sees the marquee say Cirque Du Soleil, and you start breaking into giddy excitement and glee over the prospect of mind numbingly insane, life risking performances. And if this is what you expect, then you are bound for massive disappointment, and I think that is what lead to this show being poorly received.

Banana Shpeel does not try to hide what it is though, even though we have our own expectation of Cirque Du Soleil. Right on the program that I was given, it calls itself 'Vaudeville With A Twist', and that is exactly what it is. While I was watching the show, I was quickly reminded of old literature and stories that talked about the old vaudeville acts that were hugely popular in the 1800s until about the 1930s. Actually, my own city's theatre, the Sanderson Centre, used to be a central location for the highly attended and massively heralded vaudeville performances in Ontario during the early 1900s. Vaudeville is similar to a circus except it largely appealed to the theatre going crowd (who would have been of higher income) and contained everything from acrobats, comedy, dancing, music, magic, and so forth. Vaudeville slowly lost its popularity when things like cinema came into prominence. Today, it is often associated with things like ministrel shows which obviously are highly offensive today (and a dark part of our culture's history), but the reality is, vaudeville was much more than that and still can be seen in the many forms of entertainment that it influenced (for example, any type of variety show).

If you recognize it is a different type of Cirque Du Soliel, and that it is a tribute to the vaudeville of old, then you will appreciate the show much more. There is definitely a heavier focus on comedy and skits, and sometimes they do fall flat or can be overly long. There is also some amazing acts that contain skill and risk. You have the contortionists that are regulars in Cirque. You have the extremely impressive hand to hand, which is an excellent combination of acrobatics and gymnastics that takes an amazing degrees of strength, skill and agility. I was impressed by the huge amount of strength that was needed in the hand balancing act (where Dmitry Bulkin did several tricks and movements on a pole while holding on to it with his hands and not touching the ground with his feet -- think flag on a pole but a person is the flag), and based off the whistling by the ladies in the audience, they were impressed by his removal of his shirt (think my body but a little more definition). Then there was some new additions to Cirque Du Soleil such as tap dancing, which also required great skill and was impressive.

The producers attempted something new, and tried their own take on vaudeville. The performers actually spoke in English rather than gibberish, which showed it was a different type of Cirque (also there was a bit more of a 'story'). As I stated, they focused much more on comedy, and the clowns doing numerous skits. There was much more dancing and a spotlight on the music then in any other Cirque. Of course, that is what you would expect if you were going to a vaudeville show, but unfortunately, I am not sure how many people today know what that is, let alone actually expected that in Cirque Du Soleil. As for the comedy sketches, I thought some did drag in spots or missed their mark. The opening skit went on a little long and some of the jokes were met with complete silence. I am not sure if it was partly because the crowd wasn't expecting to be greeted with a stand up routine or if the opener truly was weak in spots (and I personally, think it was a little bit of both). On the other hand, there was some really solid and funny skits. Claudio Carnerio and Gordon White, for example, did an amazing job with the comedy sketch about a date, which included them using a legit female audience member to pull off the gag. It was by far the best skit, because it did not seem to go too long and was legitimately funny, while also showing great skill and timing throughout. The show can be best summed up as containing decent comedy, along with amazing acts of skill in acrobatics, gymnastics and dance. It was a decent effort in trying to do something a little different with the Cirque Du Soleil brand.

If you're in Toronto and can snag yourself a deal, then I highly recommend the show. It was a fun way to spend an evening, and you should enjoy it as long as you know it isn't your typical Cirque Du Soleil. Rather, it is a great homage to the vaudeville of the past, and a fairly decent attempt at doing something unique to the modern theatre scene.

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