Review: Teatro ZinZanni’s `The Royale Invitation’

Stunts, food highlight ZinZanni’s new Royale Invitation
three stars Still fun, still chaotic

The first time I saw Teatro ZinZanni’s Love, Chaos and Dinner, I left with a pounding headache and a wish never to return to the spiegeltent set up on San Francisco’s Pier 29.

That was more than seven years ago, and return I did to see visiting divas Joan Baez and Lilliane Montevecchi, among others. On subsequent visits, the crass, chaotic tone of this circus-cabaret-dinner experience seemed more subdued and more genuinely entertaining.

Last Friday, the ZinZanni crew — headed by director Norman Langill — unveiled a more fully revised show, The Royale Invitation. There have been constant changes to the ZinZanni show during its surprising seven-year run, but this latest “freshening up” has a distinctly different tone.

To be sure, all the same ingredients are in play. There’s still a delicious five-course meal served by Taste Catering. Audience members are still pulled into play by the “chef,” Tad Overdone (San Francisco funny man Michael Davis), for involved routines prior to the serving of the soup (carrot ginger), salad (shrimp, romaine and green goddess dressing) and entree (choice of lamb, chicken cacciatore, baked ravioli or spring vegetable empanadas).

But the character of Madame ZinZanni is gone, replaced by a character simply called The Queen, played by British comedian Krissie Illing (above), who is the spitting image of legendary comedian Imogene Coca.

Illing makes her grand entrance in full Queen Victoria garb (the brilliantly elaborate costumes are by Beaver Bauer). But then the dress cracks open like the palace gates, and out steps a dowdy little buck-toothed queen in a plaid dress carrying a handbag and a stuffed dog.

There’s a semblance of a plot in this show (script by Illing, Davis and Mark Britton, the assistant director) that has the chef and the queen rekindling an old flame that started during their childhood acquaintance. But the queen’s first minister, the sinister maitre d’ played by Eugeniy Voronin, would like to snag the crown for himself.

The continuity of a plot, meager as it may be, helps give some shape to the evening, which otherwise is a mishmash of cabaret singing, comic bits (none of which are terribly funny) and circus acts.

The singing is primarily provided by Sarah Dash (a founding member of Labelle), who opens with a rousing “Lady Marmalade” and, before the three-hour event is over, also tackles “Fever,” “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “Masquerade.”

Aside from the chef, the clown squad is headed by Peter Pitofsky, who’s amusing without actually being funny, and Voronin, whose long scene with the queen includes the kind of clunky magic tricks that make the special effects on “Bewitched” look cutting edge.

The best clown bit of the evening also happens to be one of the best circus acts. Sad-faced Sabine Maier and eager-to-please Joachim Mohr play Mr. and Mrs. Maier, a waiter and waitress who end up clowning around on the trapeze.

The other gob-stopping circus number is the vertical tango — literally a gravity-defying tango performed on a pole — by Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi.

Contortionist Svetlana plays a sort of robot doll that gets too much stage time, and Crystalle’s rope act, while lovely, goes on for far too long.

At last Friday’s show, Davis’ chef ran hot and cold with his audience-participation tricks. He struck gold in a man from the audience — an incredibly good sport — who had no problem playing along and juggling raw, whole chickens.

He fared less well with two ladies asked to provide sound effects for a prolonged fairy tale preceding the salad.

While not nearly as headache-inducing as it was seven years ago, ZinZanni’s Royale Invitation has its charms but remains, in spite of the excellent food, an acquired taste.

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