When I think back to seeing the first incarnation of Dear San Francisco, the circus spectacular based in Beach Blanket Babylon’s old home, one thing always stands out to me. (Well, two things, if you count London Breed openly mocking all of us for being COVID-safe.) It’s how the show patted itself on the back for celebrating SF’s diversity, but did everything in its power to not actually represent it. Most egregious was its watered-down allusions to SF’s LGBTQ+ history: the show tossed around milquetoast terms like “Love is Love” amongst rainbow-tinted imagery, but the performers seemed to bend over backwards to not used the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” or any queer terminology.
The opening performances of Circus Bella’s BANANAS! (through July 16 at various locations) landed smack-dab on Pride weekend, and it was both a relief and a surprise to hear the occasion get a pre-show shoutout. Granted, it was just a quick acknowledgement that only used the “LGBTQ” acronym, but it was about the length of the Native American land acknowledgement, and it was leaps and bounds more than what Dear San Francisco did. The all-ages outdoor crowd at Yerba Buena Gardens were given no ambiguity about what the announcer meant.
Given all the mentions of back-bending and leaps, you’re probably wondering how Circus Bella’s actual show (their second since last year’s post-lockdown return) stacks up. Well, if it’s the gasp-inducing work of chair-stacker Cole Bennington, then not too bad. Bennington’s act comes near the end of the hourlong show that only saw a few flubs—fortunately, just during a juggling act rather than the chair-stacking.
The wraparound clown show features director/CB co-founder Abigail Munn taking a rather inexplicable stance against the titular botanical yellow berry, leading her regular clowns (Jamie Coventry, Natasha Kaluza, and Calvin Kai Ku) to go to increasingly ridiculous lengths to get their hands on the peelable plants. If you’re sensitive to puns, be warned that one spoken clown sequence features a deluge of groan-inducing bon mots, including someone being left “peachless” and a declaration that “Grape minds think alike.”
Other acts include the jaw-dropping contortions of Elise Hing, the juggling skills of Brazilian Jefferson Freire, the steel-bending strongman work of Toni Cannon, the tightwire dancing of Logan Kerr, and bendy aerial hoop work of Dwoira Galilea.
As with last year, the show proper was preceded by the African stilt-walk stylings of Oakland’s Prescott Circus. As with last year, they nearly stole the show before it even began, bringing a rhythmic and (literally) well-balanced routine by way of their incredibly young participants. They caught the crowd’s attention early, with one member easily cheesing it up for the sake of milking as much applause as he could. Since the troupe were good at what they do, one can’t really blame him.
In fact, the little ones in the audience were always the deciding factor of an act’s success. Holding the attention of a toddler or grade-schooler can sometimes confound even the brightest of minds. So to watch the kids of this show stunned into not-boredom-but-silence by the one-ring show in front of them (particularly, Hing’s contortion) is a measure of success we all can appreciate.
What I personally appreciated was just how many of those young faces were masked, even at this outdoor show. It was the entire audience, regardless of age, but given how the whole world seems to have taken one of two positions—1) pretend the pandemic is over and just “let ‘er rip” or 2) acknowledge COVID is still around, but just tell everyone to wash their hands—it’s heartening to see younger folks, whether at their parents’ insistence or not, taking the simple step of masking to protect themselves and others in such close quarters.
Though I hadn’t seen a Circus Bella show since last year, it’s becoming a pleasant annual summer event—low-tech enough to welcome all audiences, diverse enough to show off the eclectic variety of Bay Area performers. Should you come upon its tumbling troupe in a Bay Area park, your hour wouldn’t be wasted.
CIRCUS BELLA’S BANANAS! Runs through July 16 at various Bay Area parks, as well as two performances in Reno. Free admission and further info here.