Sunday, October 11, 2009

Let the Fantasea begin

On 24 September, after an al fresco dinner overlooking the river at Rivers, a friend and I took a cab to the Shedd Aquarium for a members' preview of the new oceanarium show, Fantasea.

I didn't follow the renovation of the oceanarium, so I didn't know anything about it. In some ways, I still don't, because we didn't walk around it afterward. Much of the work, however, seems to have been focused on making Fantasea possible vs. making wholesale changes to the visible and/or aqueous parts of the exhibit—at least, from what I could see from my seat next to the new railings between seating sections.

When Ken Ramirez joined Shedd in the late 1980s as assistant curator of marine mammals and training (he's now vice president of collections and training), he said that the Shedd would never put on marine mammal shows (implication: like SeaWorld), only educational presentations highlighting the whales' and dolphins' natural behaviors, performed on cue. I'm sure I'm not making that up because I seem to recall talking about it with several docents at Lincoln Park Zoo. We even may have discussed it with Ramirez himself when he served as a guest dinner speaker at the 1993 AZAD conference we hosted. I saw the presentation a few times and noticed, or think I noticed, that music and a little showmanship crept in over time, but it remained primarily educational and plain.

Never say never, however.

Now it's definitely a show. A show complete with video, music, costumes, staging, lighting, and props. All that is missing are dialogue, plot, and curtain-call roses for the female lead, a young girl selected from the audience (possibly a privileged person's daughter, pre-selected and rehearsed, judging from her, shall we say, flair for the dramatic). I'm getting ahead of myself, however.

As we sat and waited for what our rear ends told us was a very long time, a lot of important-looking people wandered into the other seating section—the aquarium's board of trustees, which was holding a meeting afterward. I asked my friend how I can get a seat on the board; it looked like a good way to prop up my sagging confidence. She told me to have and donate lots and lots of money. It's that simple. That's really too bad, though—don't my lots and lots of wisdom, insight, and vision compensate for my lack of funds and connections? Anyway, seated in front of the VIPs were "special guests," a couple of elementary school classes.

We were shown some videos, one highlighting Shedd's history. Perhaps an older native Chicagoan might have recognized some of the people pictured (who, in their day, probably had and donated lots and lots of money). My friend disliked the music, which managed to combine a New Age sound with a funereal rhythm, all cranked painfully loud.

The next video captured everyone's attention, showing the beluga whales' return trip from Mystic, Connecticut, on a FedEx cargo plane. Placed into slings, lifted by crane onto a truck and then presumably onto the plane, flown, and trucked again like so much freight, reassured by their handlers, and finally released into their pool, the belugas surely wondered what they had done to deserve this and when the nightmare would be over. I may be anthropomorphizing, but I can imagine only that these intelligent and emotional animals must find being packaged and transported bewildering and stressful, even if they have experienced it before. This video was so touching that some audience members seemed to shed a few tears. Not me, of course.

An introductory video excited us, especially when we saw the red-tailed hawks.

A staffer came out to introduce the preview, warning us that Fantasea is a work in progress and that the animals may choose not to perform their natural behaviors on cue. Like actors (and co-workers), even trained animals may not feel like co-operating. At this point, the young girl lead was selected from the board's side of the audience and given a giant glowing Fantasea logo necklace.

Let the Fantasea begin.

The cast of Fantasea characters includes a sea lion, a rockhopper and a mini-flock of Magellanic penguins, beluga whales, two red-tailed hawks, and the stars of the finale, the showy and popular Pacific white-sided dolphins. The supporting cast consisted of humans dressed to resemble, in a stylized sense, their animal counterparts. Ahead of the hawks, a feathered human "flew" in along a ceiling track; before another act (the dolphins? Now I can't recall), three people sporting bowlers and umbrellas dropped in via trapeze swing contraptions. Between acts, video showed strangely dressed people swimming and ambulating through surreal, almost psychedelic environments, while the girl lead turned on her necklace and apparently directed the action with a little help from the spirit guides.

As for the animals, the sea lion performed some imitative flipper waving, but, as my friend dryly observed, his best trick seemed to be swallowing prodigious quantities of fish. It's all positive.

A man dressed in a penguin-style wet suit appeared, carrying a rockhopper under his arm. When he discovered the Magellanic flock of three or four in a box on wheels, he pointed them out dramatically to his rockhopper companion, who seemed nonplussed. The Magellanic penguins proved difficult to entice out of their box (I suspect penguins are like flamingos—if you can persuade one to move, the rest will follow). The man set the rockhopper down, leaving the bird to hop up our aisle to the amazement and delight of the crowd (especially those close enough to touch it). I can't remember much else other than the man retrieving and tucking the rockhopper under his arm again.

The belugas performed much as they have in the past, perhaps a little closer to the audience and a little more flair in the cues from the trainers.

After the flight of the human hawk, a woman dressed in a quasi-Robin Hood outfit appeared with a red-tailed hawk on her fist. The hawk flew from the seating side to the opposite island. A similarly dressed man appeared with a second hawk for the audience to see more closely, but his hawk was having none of it, bating and falling off the glove repeatedly.

The show wrapped up with the Pacific white-sided dolphins, who, like the whales, spyhopped, flopped, leaped, and flapped their way to an ovation, the most enthusiastic of the evening.

The girl returned the glowing necklace with more dumb show, and so Fantasea ended.

Afterward, the hawk handler told us the birds are blind in one eye—that's why they're nonreleasable—while we commented on the difficulty of indoor flight for even a fully sighted raptor. To a couple of our questions she responded that certain ideas didn't fit into the "story line." Here she lost me.

Story line?

The concept behind Fantasea is to connect the visitors to the animals. We guessed that the trainers and others, like the flying human, filled the role of spirit or animal guides, although I'm not sure that most, or many, average visitors would catch onto that—it wasn't clear.

My opinion of Fantasea is colored by my childhood and my experience. I wasn't raised on the Disney diet, and I didn't learn to anthropomorphize animals. They weren't furry variations on humans; they were more interesting to me for the things that made them different from humans and each other, such as their adaptations, behavior, and interrelationships. A cat was more than cute and cuddly; it was an effective hunter, capable of strength and speed. In every house cat I see shades of lions and tigers. What I do not see is a singing and dancing Disney character or even Sylvester the Cat. My experience as a zoo docent reinforced my perceptions. That's why I see Fantasea from a different perspective than the Chicago Tribune critic, who praised its "thrilling moments and truly eye-popping production values." I'm quite sure most of the audience would agree with this assessment, not mine.

From my skewed viewpoint, the show seemed lacking in a few areas. For example:

Story line. Aside from the girl running from point to point with her periodically glowing Fantasea necklace and meeting the guides and animals, there was no story line. The connections that are supposed to be at the heart of Fantasea made little emotional impact; there were no "ahhh" moments that I noticed, except perhaps a bit of surprise when the rockhopper hopped up the rocky steps. In addition, the red-tailed hawks didn't fit the program. In nature, these animals would not be found together, but at least the sea lion, whales, penguins, and dolphins share aquatic environments and adaptations. While the red-tailed hawk may be found in coastal areas, it's not an emblematic water raptor in the same way the osprey or even bald eagle is. The one's short flight and the other's brief appearance seemed tacked on; they didn't seems to be an integral part of the barely discernible story line.

Animals. How can a show that features six species be said to be short on animals? With the backdrop, bright lights, garish video, blaring music, kitschy costumes, props, girl guide with glowing necklace, and human shenanigans, the animals got quite lost in all that sensory overload. The focus is on them such a short time and is disrupted by so many human interactions that they become almost ancillary to their own show.

Education. With the emphasis on "connection," little in the show provides education or even an attempt at it. To me it seems connections are made and formed with species that we understand, respect, and relate to on some level. All this requires some knowledge acquired through education. At the end of Fantasea, I knew no more about why should I want or feel connection with the sea lion, penguins, belugas, hawks, or dolphins than I had before. Not even the simple point that we all depend on clean water was made. You might learn more at—dare I say it?—SeaWorld.

Shedd has more than SeaWorld to compete with—nonstop action movies with sophisticated animation that makes anything possible, games, virtual reality, facebook, texting—our attention spans seem shorter and more easily diverted than ever. As long as we don't love simple pleasures anymore and need constant and greater stimulation, a mere educational animal presentation doesn't cut it. That's a shame, because all the video, music, lights, and staging detract from the heart and soul of the show and from what's important—the animals.

I also wondered about the animals, especially the rockhopper penguin. I've read that Antarctic penguin species (compared to their temperate climate counterparts, like the Magellanic penguins) do not fare well in temperatures that are even moderately too warm, becoming prone to disease and death, yet here is an Antarctic species paraded in air that's at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer than its optimum range. It wasn't until I'd slept on it, though, that I realized what bothered me more—that the rockhopper was treated like a prop. To me, this sends the wrong message; to form a connection with wild animals, we first must respect what they are, which is neither stage prop nor pet. Rockhoppers aren't objects to be tucked under the arm and carried about like a clutch purse. The thought of it disturbed me even in my sleep.

For all my hand wringing, however, supplemented by that of my friend, perhaps the best commentary came from a little boy I'd noticed early in the evening because he was wearing a St. Thomas the Apostle School t-shirt. After the show, his mother encouraged him to go talk to the trainers. Ignoring her, he spread his arms wide and ran away up the steps, saying, "I want to fly like a hawk."

For at least that brief moment, he'd made a connection.


  1. sounds like you had a wonderfull time and what a great blog thanks for sharing and posting this .

  2. I'm sorry to see the Shedd going in this direction. I attended one of the dolphin breakfasts 15 or so years ago facilitated by Ken Ramirez and it was enlightening and entertaining. Just being in the presence of marine mammals is dazzling, inspiring and thought-provoking.