Pioneer Press: 'Balloonacy' review: Short, simple, silly and superb

By Rob Hubbard

Robert Dorfman co-stars with a balloon in "Balloonacy," running through May 4 at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.

France may be one of civilization's great centers for art, literature and philosophy, but it also loves a good pratfall. It's a clowning capital, with the French passion for physical comedy ranging from the classiness of mime Marcel Marceau to the lowbrow hijinks of Jerry Lewis.

But the most brilliant of French clowns may have been Jacques Tati. A writer, filmmaker and actor, he created masterful parodies of modern society such as "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" and "Mon Oncle" that employed very little dialogue and a whole lot of imaginative ways for things to go hilariously wrong.

When entering Children's Theatre Company's little black box space for its latest production, "Balloonacy," I picked up on the Tati vibe immediately. The ushers were clad in berets and scarves, a concertina sang on the soundtrack and a gray-haired man was reading the French newspaper, Le Monde, at his kitchen table. Sure enough, what ensued was a silly but sweet, wordless but clear tale of a man who reluctantly becomes friends with a red balloon.

It's also one of the best things that the company has created for the under-six crowd in quite some time. Written by Barry Kornhauser -- the playwright responsible for CTC's much-lauded 2006 Buster Keaton homage "Reeling" -- it's a delightful little romp that has plenty of playful shtick but also offers some touching reminders of the ups and downs of developing a strong friendship.

Having recently seen Robert Dorfman's impressive performance as Sigmund Freud in the Guthrie production of "Freud's Last Session," I never would have guessed that his resume included a stint as a clown in the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus. But you can see it in his "Balloonacy" performance, in which he's the only actor onstage who isn't made of inflated rubber and string. He plays into and off of the excited reactions of the wee ones assembled on the floor before him, his face saying everything you need to know.

He plays a man seemingly resigned to celebrating his birthday alone, until a persistent balloon becomes intent upon joining him. Over a dinner of flying Parmesan cheese, spewed Perrier and spaghetti mixed with balloon string, they bond, soon engaging in crowd-participation pin the tail on the donkey and surreal hide-and-seek. Victor Zupanc's music and clever sound design provide the closest thing to a third character, the tunes preparing the kids for every oncoming mood shift, most notably when issues of loss and loneliness emerge.

At a little over 30 minutes, "Balloonacy" has a good length for its intended audience, which laughed long and loudly at the performance I attended. But this is one that the adults can enjoy, as well, so long as they're willing to have a silly French frolic.

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