Known for extraordinary circus arts, Cirque du Soleil has taken a raucous, delightful detour. Banana Shpeel, now at the Beacon Theater, features the masterful troupe in a new show that's more theatrical than previous incarnations. Banana Shpeel showcases the company's acting chops, since it's structured as a variety/vaudeville revue. This round, Cirque speaks!
Or as it's unofficially billed: "Cirque du Schmelky," named for Marty Schmelky (Danny Rutigliano), a loudmouthed barker boss who oversees a crazy collection of clowns, (the inspired Claudio Carneiro and Patrick De Valette) a gum-chewing secretary (a pitch-perfect Shereen Hickman), two assistants (Daniel Passer and Wayne Wilson) and a host of remarkable acts, which Schmelky introduces with great fanfare.
While it's more traditional comedy than abstract artistry, Banana Shpeel retains the signature Cirque du Soliel style -- a heady mix of physical splendor. Elegant foot juggler Vanessa Alvarez is the wow factor that opens the show. She's joined by memorable performers, including amazing duo Preston Jamieson and Kelsey Wiens, astounding acrobat Dmitry Bulkin, and three Mongolian female contortionists who seemingly defy the laws of nature.
The choreography celebrates the body beautiful, while the costumes, as befits a revue, are colorful and sassy. Shpeel has the requisite shtick, wrapped around an eye-popping show with a lively musical score. One of the highlights: mime Carneiro parodies a date with an audience member and manages to be both funny and sublime. Banana Shpeel's tribute to vaudeville is big, brash, wild and wacky entertainment; in short, it's tops.
While Shpeel traffics in spectacle, Metal Children, now at the Vineyard Theater, is mired in present-day literary woes.
Billy Crudup, an accomplished actor in any medium, tackles a controversial topic in Adam Rapp's provocative new drama: The responsibility an artist has to his work. Tobin Falmouth (a compelling Crudup) is the author of Metal Children, a young adult novel that earned critical acclaim. A decade later, it's been banned from a school "in the heartland" because it addresses two hot-button topics: teen pregnancy and abortion.
The town's teens, like the ones in Tobin's book, are becoming pregnant, then mysteriously disappearing. The school board, led by the Good Christian Church, decides to seize all copies of the book and lock them away. Anyone brave enough to defend it, like Stacey, an enlightened English teacher (Connor Barrett), is violently harassed. Meantime, the teenagers' obsession with the novel, which distorts its intention, is frightening.
Rapp, who doubles as director, speaks from experience. Like his protagonist, he wrote a YA novel in 1997 and by 2005, it was struck from the curriculum at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa. The slam against the Right seems appropriate, especially in light of recent Tea Party protests. Those who speak for God in Metal Children are either pompously condescending (Guy Boyd) or lonely busybodies (Betsy Aidem) who arrogantly believe they know what God wants. Both are blind to their own hypocrisies.
In fairness, Tobin is also a disappointment. Invited to defend his work, he is an emotional wreck, too busy wrestling with his own demons to tackle weighty literary concerns. When he meets 16-year-old Vera, a Metal devotee (a terrific Phoebe Strole), he's less savior than enabler. Tobin's passivity is as unnerving as his detractors' zeal. He misses an opportunity to champion uncomfortable truths. Rapp raises several critical issues in his play; his refusal to answer them is frustrating -- a big minus in a production full of pluses: a flawless cast, smart direction and an ideal venue for this intimate, sometimes unnerving, but thoughtful effort.