nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
May 13, 2005
Walking into the Planet Banana theatre, set up like a nightclub with two working bars, white fur-topped tables, and giant bubbles adorning the walls, may be enough to tip off the audience that something that they don’t quite understand is in store for them. Maybe when the S&M-clad Mario (Clarke McFarlane) arrives, painted mustache and all, and asserts that they have “now landed on Planet Banana,” the audience may have another clue to the strangeness ahead. But when Silvia (Silvia Machete) gets onstage in her tall Nancy Sinatra wig, takes a sip of what looks like an apple martini, and then starts seductively blowing bubbles around herself with the green (likely dish soap) liquid in the middle of a rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema,” it is surely time to for viewers to recognize that they are attending a different kind of event.
To call Planet Banana a play, or even a musical, is to miss the point. It is more like a circus set up in a nightclub, fully loaded with juggling feats, acrobatic dance routines, and clownish pratfalls. It is irreverent and shameless good fun.
The circus tends to be a venue where the audience is deliberately kept outside the magic, expected to admire from a distance. The sequins and red noses are maintained at a far enough range for the desired effect of seamless spectacle. But the illusion of the circus is always a little dissatisfying. The audience is expected to believe that the performers are super-human, and as one ages and becomes more critical, the circus generally loses some of its luster. One may even begin to entertain a suspicion that if they were to get close enough in, the sequins would be dingy with smoke stains and the clowns' breath may reek of alcohol.
Planet Banana, on the other hand, is a much more human kind of circus, bringing it close enough to the audience to bear their scrutiny. In fact, Planet Banana seems to invite the audience to see them as not super-human, but all too human. The performers abandon the glitzy illusion and distance of the circus in favor of showing their characters as what you might have suspected them to be—tired, a little bit boozy, and looking for love—in other words, just like you and me. In the meantime, they manage to cram every kind of big top trick that they can fit on to their small stage, maintaining all the skill that one would expect from Barnum and Bailey.
There is a story at work here, but it definitely matters less than the party. Silvia, Mario, and the Doctor are the characters that navigate the world of Planet Banana. Mario acts as host of the nightclub, Silvia as his main act, and the Doctor as Silvia’s love interest from the outside world. Silvia has been waiting for a doctor to find and marry, and when he arrives inside her club, they immediately begin their courtship.
Much to Silvia’s disappointment, he is called away by a medical emergency involving children and a puppy, but he begs Silvia to wait for him. To encourage her to trust him and prove he’ll return, he has her listen to his chest with his stethoscope, and beyond his heavy beat, she hears her voice in his heart. Through cruel fate, and a particularly tough game of musical chairs, Silvia is forced to leave the club, thinking she has been forgotten by her doctor. And as in any tragic love story, the Doctor arrives just in time to miss Silvia, thinking he, in fact, is the forsaken one.
Musings on love and its perils pepper the monologues and influence the kind of acts being performed by the characters. Silvia, Mario, and the Doctor, are endearing in their good-natured and often clownish innocence. We can easily see their circus acts as an expression of everything from their sexual anxiety to their jaded disappointments.
Planet Banana has a good sense of its audience, which is essential considering that they dip into it often for extras in their performance and source material for their jokes. But in this meticulously planned experience, the audience is taken care of and well-rewarded for their good humor. There is an easy kind of enjoyment to be had here, especially if you have visited the bar before the show, and enjoyed one or two flutes of the house drink, “The Planet Banana.”
The live band, “Baby, Can You Do Me A Favor?” is outstanding. Their comic timing is great, and they are seamlessly integrated into the whole Planet Banana experience. Their music and their unusual arrangements are eclectic, surprising, and completely exciting.
And while everything is silly on Planet Banana, nothing is artless. Ars Nova is a fantastic venue for the piece, intimate enough that everyone manages to feel included in the offbeat world. Each element of the design is tended to and exudes some of the exuberance of the play itself. The director (Virginia Scott), designers, and performers of Planet Banana are masters of the art of making a keenly crafted production look impromptu and off the cuff. It is much like a well-rehearsed trapeze act, strange in how effortless it seems.
To say too much about this is to ruin the surprises that await the audiences of this quirky show.
So, for a good time, call Planet Banana.