August 21, 2009
A few days ago, The New York Times published an article about the demise of the Vaudeville-style sideshow. "Fire-breathing bizarros are so hard to find these days," the article began. That may be the case in New York, but in San Francisco, fire-breathing bizarros -- bizarros of all stripes in fact -- are two a penny.
I was reminded of this fact last night as I experienced The Shadow Circus Vaudeville Theatre's performance at The Climate Theater alongside some visiting relations from England: my aunt, her husband and my 16-year-old cousin.
The show turned out to be the perfect thing to expose a trio of inquisitive and slightly adventurous tourists. The Climate is as quirky an underground space as they come, with rickety stairs, a tiny stage, neon-light-and-plastic-chandelier-tinged decor and $3 bottles of IPA. And the evening's entertainment perfectly epitomized the quintessential San Francisco underground theatre experience. It consisted of a mish-mash of eccentric-looking performers dressed in Victorian boudoir attire (corsets and lace for the ladies, waistcoats and suspenders for the men) playing accordions, upright bass, percussion and keyboard while singing songs about carnie sex, skits involving beautiful-grotesque puppets (more about these in a bit) and guest spots from a magician, a contortionist and a singer-songwriter cellist with a downbeat repertoire.
My relatives really enjoyed the show, which made me happy. But I was a little disappointed.
The Shadow Circus Vaudeville Theatre does an admirable job with its puppets, which are all handmade and have larger-than-life personalities. There was a cantankerous, foul-mouthed velociraptor with very pointy teeth and a smooshed-face vaudeville performance groupie with a whiny voice who can't stop stealing the female performers' underwear. I also enjoyed the professorly San Francisco bard hopelessly stuck in the 1950s and 1960s with his nostalgia for Haight Street's Summer of Love and the Beat Poets.
But despite brief spots of inspiration, the performance on the whole rambled on with little to keep the energy going between songs and acts. There needed to be more pzazz and showmanship. Instead the balloon deflated between each "bit" and only inflated to bouncy proportions on occasion.
I think I have seen so much of this kind of thing in the Bay Area, having been here for 10 years. A bunch of corsets, accordions and quirky pirate songs does not always a successful show make, no matter how tightly the corsets are laced.