"Hail Caesar!" features a master of improv who, behind a buffoon-like exterior, is a genius of comedic timing and clever comebacks.
The current show at Teatro ZinZanni is titled “Hail Caesar!” but it might just as well be called “Hail Frank!” given that it's built primarily around the fast-talking, wisecracking emcee extraordinaire Frank Ferrante. Ferrante, who has been a staple of the ZinZanni cast here and in San Francisco since 2001, remains the show’s biggest headliner and for good reason.
With his painted-on mustache and oversized beauty mark, the irrepressible Ferrante looks like a buffoon. But behind the cartoon-like appearance is a genius of comedic timing and clever comebacks. Watching Ferrante over the course of an evening, it should come as no surprise that he has a whole other career as an actor, comedian, and director who’s won awards for his onstage portrayal of Groucho Marx in New York, London, and on PBS. Ferrante has even been an answer on “Jeopardy!”
A master of improv, Ferrante can take a theme and run with it to the ends of the earth, which “Hail Caesar!” allows him to do over and over in what is essentially a play with occasional musical and circus act diversions.
With a basic story line that is as silly as they come in ZinZanni productions, “Hail Caesar” tells the story of, well, Caesar — who, in this zany version, is as proficient in the kitchen as in the bedroom. When he meets Cleopatra, all manner of fun ensues as he seduces her with his famous Love Spice. The script, which Ferrante expands with spontaneous and hilarious one-liners, takes sexual innuendo and double entendres to new levels of wit. Ferrante is such a genius of physical and verbal theater that his antics are never offensive. And he keeps tastelessness well in check as he meanders through the audience flirting with women and men alike and making all sorts of explicit and implicit sexual jokes.
As in many ZinZanni productions, the most engaging parts are the skits involving audience members, and Ferrante creates interactions that allow him to provide a rapid-fire comeback to the simplest question without overly embarrassing his subjects. When Ferrante asks one curvaceous young woman what she does for a living and she answers that she’s a student, Ferrante is right there with “Well, I’m enjoying your student body.” To the response by a well-built former Microsoftie that he’s retired, Ferrante turns to the audience with “He’s obviously not micro or soft.”
If “Hail Caesar” is essentially an over-the-top comic play with Ferrante’s character at its core, it does contain a few one-ring circus-like acts that are ZinZanni’s signature. Returning from the last Seattle production are juggler and acrobat Joel Salom, Rola Bola star Bernard Hazen, and hand balancer Elena Borodina. All three are dazzling athletes and engaging actors.
Salom does a delightful bit where he removes his pants then puts them back on while juggling nonstop, all with an impish grin on his face. Hazen repeats his terrifying Rola Bola act, in which he balances on a stack of rolling cylinders and platforms that reach almost to the tent ceiling. Though I’ve seen this act three times now, it never fails to terrify and amaze me. Borodina brings her usual grace and elegance to hand balancing on a tiny platform but this time around, she drapes herself in a filmy piece of white fabric as she contorts her body, giving her act an otherworldly feel.
Rounding out the cast are stationary trapeze artists Genevieve Landry and Maxime Clabaut; Dreya Weber as Cleo; and husband-and-wife singing duo Juliana Rambaldi and Victor Benedetti. Benedetti has a rich baritone worthy of the New York City Opera, where he has sung many roles including that of Don Giovanni, and of companies in Washington, D.C., Bonn, and Singapore — plus a regal stage presence that he uses to maximum effect in his role as a sultan.
You might ask what a sultan has to do with Caesar and Cleopatra, but this is precisely the kind of question that is best put aside at a Zinzanni show. In the 13 years that ZinZanni has been wowing audiences, guests have learned to put their seriousness in abeyance and just sit back and enjoy the craziness. They have also had a chance to appreciate some very good meals including the current five-course menu, which is especially well-suited to the evening’s theme, complete with — you guessed it — Caesar salad.
If you go: Teatro ZinZanni’s "Hail Caesar," 6:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 28 at the spiegeltent, 222 Mercer St., Seattle. Occasional shows at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $106 to $161 including dinner and are available by phone (206-802-0015) or online.