The following review is based on the Saturday, December 17th performance.
The Actors’ Gang, a troupe of performers led by Artistic Director Tim Robbins, has successfully personified family-friendly entertainment with Shambles. It’s more than just a show tailored for the exuberant spirit of the holidays; it is a theatrical experience like no other, brought to the stage by the creative mind and stewardship of Cirque du Soleil’s Stefan Haves. Interactive elements reminiscent of the Montreal-founded circus institution, along with laugh-out-loud pantomiming, combined with featured talents and a preternatural plot, have contributed to a fantastic fever dream that begins the moment one enters the Actors’ Gang Theatre. Anyone who attends this must-see variety extravaganza (through January 7th) will find themselves awestruck, smiling, laughing, and fully immersed — that is to say, don’t expect to be entirely sedentary like with most outings at the theatre!
Visitors suddenly become participants upon entering the venue, where they will find a performer who simply goes by “Super Tall Paul” (he stands 6’ 6” tall for those wondering), clad in a top hat and coke-bottled glasses, strumming his ukulele and singing with heaps of personality. Paul, who impresses as a multi-instrumentalist by also playing the saxophone and flute right before the official 90-minute presentation, and then again during the after-show gala (yes, the ceaselessly entertaining Shambles is bookended by pre and post festivities), deserves significant acclaim.
As Paul does his one-man band act at the outset, cast members dressed as NASA scientists and other curious characters lead attendees out through the front doors and around to the back of the theatre, which is festively decorated and festooned with colorful paper lanterns. It is here where visitors learn they’ve been transported to a different planet where everything makes sense and nothing does, simultaneously; it makes for a serendipitous balance of consciousness we never knew we needed. With a free mind and predisposition for having a great time, the sights, sounds, and complimentary champagne add up to a wholly pleasant and diverting ride which gets underway as guests are directed through the stimulating set pieces (a credit to Diana Mirosu) en route to their seats.
The actors are having the time of their lives by being goofy, zany, and letting loose for an audience who can appreciate their unbridled performance art. Choreographer Lindsley Allen, Costume Designer Rynn Vogel, and Makeup Designer Mona Hanouni are similarly worthy of recognition for thinking outside the box in how they’ve approached each character, one more charmingly quirky than the next. In addition to the scientists, there are aliens (recognizable by their bicycle helmets and antennae), ladies (men in drag), and an intergalactic, mustachioed feline (aptly named Feline Musk) who claws his way into an imaginative world, kickstarting the premise with his antics. It’s unclear if this mischievous cat, portrayed by Actors’ Gang Chairwoman Gina Belafonte, is living out a fantasy or is literally wreaking havoc, but it doesn’t matter as the revelry to be had is all the same.
The ensemble is indefatigable as they run around, synchronously dance, change costumes in record time, throw bouncy balls, and fabulously cheese it up with larger-than-life, soap-opera-inspired panto. Further standouts include Angelena Shohail as Feline Musk’s vivacious daughter and Fernando Siqueira as the doting boyfriend; the hilarious Pierre Adeli and Luis Quintana as the confectionary-making ladies; Myra Borja as an alien who dazzles with a feverish dance number; Stephanie G. Galindo as the epic bouffant-styled and sideburn-wearing crooner; Caroline Redekopp as a likable NASA scientist; the versatile Stephanie Pinnock who inhabits a multitude of characters; Hakop Mkhsian as the Demis Roussos-looking mountaineer with a notable presence; and, last but not least, Mariana Jaccazio as the enchanting Broadway and Ethel Merman-obsessed aficionado named “Ethel Berman.”
What makes Shambles unique, however, is that it’s not only highlighted by its second-to-none visuals, but its musical ambiance thanks to a seven-piece band, shepherded by the Emmy-nominated band leader Philip Giffin who ensures that his group functions like a well-oiled machine, seamlessly transitioning between classically familiar tunes while the sensational madness happens around them.
Giffin, furthermore, introduces many of the special acts who display certain, tremendously difficult-to-master skillsets. Although the variety performers vary from night to night, the December 17th show included the incredible tap-dancing synergy of Joseph C. Wiggan and Jason Rodgers, who compelled an immediate applause with 100 MPH flaps, toe punches, and shuffles as they spun around, ran in place, and lunged in every direction. This was followed by a thoroughly memorable routine by the uproariously witty Michael Rayner who balanced audience members’ shoes on his nose for seven seconds each (with the promise of doling out $10 for each mistake), and then segued into a gravity-defying, devil-sticks juggling act using a racket, shovel, and cymbal on an elongated stand. This was exceeded by an even more amazing demonstration of a wrapped cheeseburger doing wheely revolutions on a parasol as it magically unwrapped itself and started shooting out pickles betwixt its buns; it’s a routine that must be seen to be believed!
Ventriloquist Karl Herlinger followed, puppeteering a marionette dressed like himself but whose mouth was comprised of Herlinger’s hand and knuckles. As the audience became acquainted with the puppet — via a funny repartee with its own micro puppet and Herlinger himself — we learn that he is quite cynical, challenging his human partner to enunciate the sounds of the most formidable letters in the ventriloquist’s alphabet (e.g., B, F M, W), mouth completely closed and all, culminating in jaw-dropping tongue twisters. During this marvelously meta exchange, Herlinger pulls off the dare unerringly to the chagrin of his puppet. The last of the featured acts was capped off by Elena Brocade who breathtakingly contorted her body around a rope swing — as the band played “Hallelujah” — demonstrating an inhuman flexibility and core strength while she navigated the ropes with a transcendent ease.
As the skilled band provides the soundtrack to the finale with a mashup of “I Love L.A.,” “Let’s Groove Tonight,” “Got to Be Real,” “Love Machine,” and so on, it becomes clear that Stefan Haves’s Shambles is the wacky, weird, whimsical, and wild show we all needed to end 2022 — and begin 2023 — on the highest of highs. It’s not every day that an audience member gets to experience the eccentric and comical, with a touch of heart and lovely artistic expressions, all rolled into one. Shambles accomplishes that, and more, even allowing its audience to celebrate the marvel that it is by dancing on stage alongside the musicians, performers, and inventive minds that made this astonishingly abstract production a reality.