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Play With Your Food 

If you haven't seen it yet, now's the time to catch the world-class Teatro ZinZanni

Wednesday, Jan 15 2003
Teatro ZinZanni started almost three years ago as a sort of sit-down, dinner-theater version of Cirque du Soleil, and it shows no signs of age. Neither does its current hostess, Liliane Montevecchi. The Parisian cabaret singer and former ballerina took over the role of Madame ZinZanni late last year, and a stranger might think she looks about 55. Wrong: She's in her 70s. She first appears in the ZinZanni circus tent wearing a red feather skullcap and a tight cherry-colored dress divided to the crotch. She introduces herself as Madame ZinZanni and pretends not to know her staff. The cadaverous German maitre d', Mr. Lutz -- who abuses the kitchen help and insults the guests for not dressing up -- looks hangdog and humble in her presence. "I am your maitre d'," he says quietly. "I came with the tent."

Then Montevecchi starts to sing. Her voice is powerful, gentle, and rough, akin to Edith Piaf's. Her presence is undeniable. Maybe because of her legendary career (prima ballerina for Roland Petit, starring in Tommy Tune's Nine and the Folies Bergère), she acts less overbearing than previous Madame ZinZannis (such as Dolorèze Léonard, two years ago), but her singing is more seductive. She's alarming and strange, like the show itself, but also easy to watch over dinner.

You can't say the other characters are easy to watch over dinner, though, because almost every other act interferes with your food. A "dishwasher" called Mari Posa handed me a mushroom that had been pinned to her hat -- gee, thanks -- and then went on to pull a male guest away from his table (and female companion), seat him in a chair, yell in a Hispanic accent about how hot he was, and strip down to a French teddy. Finally, she climbed a red curtain to perform a trapezelike aerial routine over everyone's heads. Bianca Sapetto, who plays Mari, is a dancer and aerial artist from Cirque du Soleil. She not only wraps and unwraps herself in the curtain, but she also treats it, in character, as a stripper's pole.

Mari's boyfriend, Tino, pretends to be jealous. Before the second course he pulls the blushing girlfriend of the male guest out to the middle of the tent. He gives her a rose and raves in a Hispanic accent about how hot she is. Just to make sure she blushes, there are double entendres about oral sex, and then she gets to sit back down at her table. Later Tino (played by Joe Orrach) tap dances, skips rope like a boxer, sings, and punches a speed bag, while the audience tries to concentrate on a Caesar salad.

Food at Teatro ZinZanni isn't exactly beside the point, because the meal is rich and you pay a hefty bill at the end. The menu also drives whatever narrative the show has. We're introduced to each course by a chef de cuisine, Tad Overdone, who comes out every half-hour or so. Michael Davis plays him with so little stage presence that for a while I thought he really was the chef, trying to be funny; in fact, he's a juggler. First he juggles a pair of sharp cleavers and an ax. Later he spits from his mouth -- and then catches -- little tomatolike red balls. For his main event he teaches a guest how to juggle a whole raw chicken, a ball of Wonder bread, and a big wad of Country Crock. Though the food isn't an afterthought, the goal of Teatro ZinZanni is to distract the audience with behavior that would get most people spanked at the family dinner table.

The cast changes all the time, but right now, along with Madame Montevecchi, there's a hula-hoop acrobat named Mat Plendl, an opera diva named Maryam Mahvi, and a hilarious wine steward played by Leon Kaufmann, who unlike most wine stewards can perform Swiss melodies on an Alpine horn. Joan Baez portrayed Madame ZinZanni for stints in 2001 and 2002 -- she's rumored to come back this year -- and a seemingly boneless contortionist named Svetlana was a highlight of the show in 2000. In place of Svetlana, currently, a Russian gymnast named Oleg Izossimov performs a sort of ballet while balancing with one or two hands on a turning pedestal. All the performances (except the chef's jokes) are world-class, as well as perfectly useless. What, you wonder, did it take to master a talent like Svetlana's or Izossimov's? And where will these people go when the tents fold?

Happily, Teatro ZinZanni shows no sign of leaving, any more than it seems to have aged. Artistic Director Norman Langill's carnival will go on for a while as a haven for people with odd but beautiful talents. Liliane Montevecchi will, however, leave at the end of this month, so see her now if you can. Her presence adds a sophisticated grace note to Langill's bread and circus.


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