It’s spring, and I’m in love. It’s been an intermittent but long-standing affair (we met back in October 1998), but just recently I had a chance to see her again, and the flames of my ardor haven’t cooled. Our reunion was a riotous celebration, full of wine, song, and hilarity (though some of the jokes were terrible); my spirits were lifted, and some dance entered my pants. She’s just as sexy, funny, and wildly unpredictable as ever.
The only problem is, she’s not a cheap date.
I’ve been in love with Teatro ZinZanni pretty much from the chaotic opening night of the first show, seduced by a collection of world-class performers and canny promoters who set out to remake the idea of dinner theater. ZinZanni isn’t dinner theater, really, though it includes a five-course Tom Douglas–designed meal. It’s not really a circus, either, despite the rotating cast of European circus performers, from aerialists to contortionists, from jugglers to clowns. It’s not a cabaret or burlesque, though it’s included some of the sexiest performers I’ve ever seen. So what is it?
Large spectacle on an intimate scale. Norm Langill, the head of One Reel (and the guy to thank for WOMAD, the Summer Nights concert series, and the past 25 years of Bumbershoot) got the original idea for ZinZanni from an old wooden structure he came across in Barcelona in 1993, which he described as “the nightclub of your dreams.” The building was a “spiegeltent,” one of a series of transportable wooden-walled tents built by a Belgian architect around 1900, designed to be toured around Europe offering dancing and small cabarets. Similar structures now house both the Seattle and San Francisco versions of ZinZanni, and they are a large part of the show’s charm—curtained in dark reds, mirrored along practically every surface, and roofed with a high canopy.
At the beginning of the evening, there don’t seem to be any performers, just the brisk serving staff, wearing a variety of feathered, spangled, and tight-fitting outfits. But as the evening progresses, your bumbling waiter may suddenly toss off his coat and leap onto a trapeze, or the stern maitre d’ may shed her forbidding black frock and glasses and begin to bend her body like sexy pizza dough.
At first impression, there also doesn’t seem to be much of a stage. Off to one side there’s a bandstand (and a four-piece band to go with it), but in the center of the room there’s nothing but a clear area about four feet across, leading to several exits. It’s scarcely large enough for two people to stand and talk, but for three hours this little area features performers juggling, clowning, dancing, singing, and leaping onto trapeze accoutrements. Once, a server gently suggested I move my chair in to the table, and three minutes later three men were lying on a couch not five feet away, using their feet to juggle barrels, a bed, and eventually (and this I still can’t believe) each other.
You can see performers like this in other places—Cirque de Soleil has access to a small nation of aerialists, clowns, dancers, and jugglers. But only at ZinZanni will you see them literally at arm’s length. This plays to the show’s unabashed sexiness, as each version features some of the most jaw-droppingly attractive human beings you’ll ever share a room with. (The current show, alas! doesn’t feature a female contortionist but does offer Russian gymnast Oleg Izossimov, with his movie-star profile and trick of balancing his entire body on one arm.) What the show’s producers understand is that spectacle doesn’t have to equal size. To watch an aerialist act like Duo Artemiev perform 20 feet above you allows for a detailed appreciation of what human bodies can do (with just a few thousand more trips to the gym than you or I have made).
There’s generally a story of sorts, and there are recurring characters. There’s always a Madame ZinZanni, hostess of the theater, and there’s always a Chef—a role originated by Seattle’s own Kevin Kent at the ’98 show. The Chef introduces each course through slapstick improv using audience members. A warning: The straighter you look, the more likely you’ll be dragged up onstage.
The show’s gone through numerous changes since that first performance, as each new version is rewritten to spotlight the new cast. The current Madame Z. is cabaret and film star Liliane Montevecchi, who’s probably the sexiest septuagenarian I’ll ever see, but she’s brought a certain maturity to the proceedings, with several of the featured acts (dancer/comedian Wayne Doba, juggler/musician Sergiy Krutikov, and astonishing juggling trio Les Castors) being on the comfortable side of 50. Of course, they can all outsing, outdance, and outperform just about anyone half their age, so there’s little reason to complain.
Is this theater? Beats me. The narrative arc of the show is sometimes sketchy (a problem with the current version), and some of the comedy shamelessly panders to the sentimental and the lowbrow. But nine years after my first visit, I still have to say: It’s the best ticket in Seattle.