In 1992, One Reel founding member Norm Langill had a brilliant idea while walking down the Ramblas promenade in Barcelona. Langill had just experienced a spiegeltent (mirror tent), a Belgian invention consisting of a large tent designed as an entertainment venue, constructed of wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass.
Langill convinced the Belgian family that made the tent to lend him one, hired some vaudeville and cirque-type acts, asked local chef Tom Douglas to create a five-course dinner and in 1998 produced the first Teatro ZinZanni show. Today, between its two locations (Seattle and San Francisco) ZinZanni has engaged more than 1 million patrons, garnering critical acclaim and cult status as a kitschy, wacky evening of cirque, comedy, and cabaret.
Langill scours the world for the best acts. The cast, which changes roughly every three months with each new production, comes from a variety of countries and traditions. What doesn’t change is the hilarious interaction between cast and audience, the tasty Douglas-designed meal and the bewitching evening-long spectacle.
The main current production, which runs through May 8, is the most successful of the three I’ve seen over the years. Unlike the two previous ones, which attempted a narrative line that didn’t make much sense, this one is more like a pared-down Cirque du Soleil. Despite its efforts at recreating a live radio broadcast — this show is called “Radio Free Starlight” — the radio theme is loosely executed and, in fact, adds little to the high jinks and low comedy that permeate the evening.
The elastic Joe Paul, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, is back in “Radio Free Starlight” with his unique capacity for clowning. His impersonation of King Kong ascending the Empire State Building is priceless as he transforms himself from a stubby little human into the gargantuan ape. Paul has an impish quality, reinforced by his diminutive size, and a quick wit that can turn the simplest statement from an audience member into a hilarious one-liner. When he pulls a man onto the stage for a skit and asks what he does for a living – “I’m unemployed” is the unexpected answer – Paul quickly retorts, “Now you’re working for me.”
Also returning is rola bola-juggling star Bernard Hazens. Hazens continues to dazzle as he climbs a tippy tower of rolling cylinders and platforms that reach almost to the tent ceiling, then juggles pins on his precarious perch. His daredevil feats elicit oohs and aahs and the need, at least for this critic, to occasionally avert one’s eyes as his tower grows higher and higher. He also does a platter-spinning number that requires him to watch 10 spinning plates simultaneously and run back and forth between them to keep them all turning at the same time.
Every ZinZanni show contains a contortionist and this time around, Danielle Rueda-Watts adds an aerial element to the act. She twists and turns her lithe body while dangling from a red silk rope and it’s easy to see her training as a gymnast and dancer in the elegant positions she strikes.
Some of the most dazzling moments in this ZinZanni show come from Mat Plendl, who can do things with hula hoops that the rest of us can hardly imagine, let alone execute. Plendl is able to spin the hoops from every part of his body and at one point maneuvers eight hoops from the top of his head to his ankles. He also does a fine job as the show’s emcee, introducing the various acts and keeping the madness under some control.
Husband and wife ZinZanni veterans Sabine Maier and Yogi Mohr do an uproarious trapeze act with Maier never breaking character as a wordless, dour waitress and singer Duffy Bishop croons favorites in a send-up of a melodramatic cabaret star. Rounding out the cast are Juliana Rambaldi who clowns around as a diva with an operatic aria bursting inside of her and Manuela Horn, the “Austrian Amazon.” At 6’2”, Horn has turned her height into a comedic asset, extending her reach even higher with stilettos more than 5” high. Whether romping through the audience as an Alpine fraulein gone wild or a giant dominatrix, Horn’s presence dominates this production in every sense of the word.
If you go: Teatro ZinZanni’s "Radio Free Starlight" continues at the spiegeltent, 222 Mercer St., Seattle, through May 8. Performances are Thursday-Saturday evenings at 6:30 pm, with occasional Wednesdays at 6:30 and Sunday evenings at 5:30 pm. A 90-minute version, Sweet Sunday Brunch, is offered on select dates. Tickets: 206-802-0015, www.zinzanni.org. Prices on the web site for a recent sampling of "Radio Free Spotlight" dinner shows started at $106 or $126 and ranged to $141 or $161.