Teatro ZinZanni tames the zaniness


Dreya Weber, an extraordinary actor, singer and aerialist, lights up the Teatro ZinZanni speigeltent.

I’ll just say it right up front: the first time I saw Teatro ZinZanni, I left the spiegeltent with a raging headache.

That was 10 years ago, and the show was, appropriately, Love, Chaos & Dinner. I’ve been back a number of times over the last decade, and I really started to see a change when Joan Baez joined the show and took over the dual role of hostess and singer. Having one person who could assay both characters with aplomb (not to mention star power) really gave the show some cohesion it sorely needed.

I returned to Pier 29 recently and surprised myself by actively enjoying the show. Director Norman Langill and his team (co-director/choreographer Tobias Larsson, associate director Elise “Mo” Durocher and associate artistic director Reenie Duff) have really tamed the chaos and found a way to balance comedy, audience interaction, music, circus acts and genuine elegance. This latest version, dubbed Hail Caesar, is a fun and classy show.

Much of the credit must go to Dreya Weber, an extraordinary performer who is going Joan Baez one further. Weber plays Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile resurrected and transported in her sarcophagus to the spiegeltent. She brings with her a potent love spice that sends everyone it touches into tizzies of amour. That’s pretty much it for plot, but that shred is all you really need.

When Weber walks out of that sarcophagus, you notice a couple things right away: she’s gorgeous and Beaver Bauer’s skimpy costume reveals six-pack abs that could slice a diamond. She immediately falls in love with Caesar, not the Roman emperor but the chef de cuisine played by Frank Ferrante (seen at right), an inspired clown. They sing songs, both torchy and comic, composed by Martha Davis of The Motels, and then Weber surprises everyone by climbing onto braided white silks and performing a stunning aerial act that’s like a poetic ritual straight out of Egypt.

Top that, Joan Baez!

Before the soup, salad, entree and dessert courses, Ferrante engages the audience in some sort of interactive play. If that sounds horrifying, don’t worry. Ferrante is funny but also gentle. He doesn’t generate laughs at anyone’s expense, which makes him an ideal host. He’s sharp but not threatening, and he gets some big, big laughs. The most amazing thing on the night I saw him was that no one he dragged out of the audience seemed to regret it afterward.

Virtually all of the performers and routines have their charms. The most exciting acrobatic act is the vertical tango – call it sex on a pole – by Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi (seen at right), two extraordinary midair dancers. Tim Tyler is amusing as the fastidious Mr PP, and Ling Rui and Fang Ming demonstrate impressive feats of strength and flexibility. The five-piece band, led by Russ Long, is a zippy delight, and I was especially pleased to hear them play Weill’s “The Bilbao Song” and “My Ship” as meal underscore.

The most charming moment of the evening comes when most members of the audience join the performers for a slow dance all around the tent. All pretense drops away, and everyone revels in the sheer delight of a calm, romantic dance.

The food has long been my favorite part of the evening, and it remains stellar. But my affection for the show has at long last surpassed my love of the five-course dinner.


Teatro ZinZanni’s Hail Caesar! Is at Pier 29 on The Embarcadero in San Francisco. Shows are at 6pm Wednesdays-Saturdays and 5 pm Sundays. Tickets are $117 to $145. Call 415 438-2668 or visit www.lovezinzanni.org.

Clowning around in the Chronicle


In today’s SF Chronicle Sunday Datebook, I wrote about the fine art of clowning.

A couple weekends ago I attended a clown class in the Teatro ZinZanni spiegeltent with Peter Pitofsky.

Read the story here.

I also talked to one of my favorite clowns, John Gilkey. I first saw him as the emcee of sorts in Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam back when they were putting their tent in Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Read the story here.

Bay Area native Gilkey came through in a few more Cirque shows and has landed back in the Bay. He’s performing with the comedy trio We Are Nudes in Show No Show Thursday, July 9-Saturday, July 11. at the Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St., San Francisco. Call 415 704-3260 or visit www.climatetheater.com.

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.

For information visit love.zinzanni.org.