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[whitespace] Cleaving: Le Chef bursts amply through five festive ZinZanni courses at 'Love, Chaos & Dinner.'

Zany ZinZanni

Beyond dining, Teatro ZinZanni wheezes with gigantic whimsy

By Alyssa Nitchun

While it's difficult to imagine Washington Mutual backing anything artistically valid, Teatro ZinZanni proves boardroom snores and bohemians can make a deal. It's Faustian, maybe. Teatro ZinZanni's fantasy-filled, fin de siècle spell-casting blends fine dining with even finer theatrical entertainment. It's a naughtier Cirque du Soleil with dinner, and not surprisingly a few Teatro ZinZanni members are founding Cirque du Soleil vets. Audacious nymphet Madamme ZinZanni emcees the raucous evening, presiding over the chaos with a saucy, demanding air. Her zany multicultural freak show amalgamates cabaret, performance art and the old-fashioned circus. A tremendous energy passes from cast to audience, and soon even the most dour patron is clapping along. At the end of the evening everyone leaves more invigorated than exhausted.

The huge, flag-flying Spiegeltent on The Embarcadero's Pier 27/29 is the show's portable home. The Palais Nostalgique, nom de guerre of Casa ZinZanni, was built in 1926 and is one of a handful of Spiegeltents worldwide. These rare spaces are handmade tent/pavilions that fit together without aid of a single nail, and are decorated with unique cut-glass work, velvet, mirrors and wooden floors. The Palais was once used as a dance hall and wine-tasting venue, and the spirit of both is carried on with the Teatro. Taste Catering designs the menu while Stars Bar & Dining artfully executes the service--costumed waiters pile out from backstage, running and dancing the food to the tables. The five-course dinner occasionally teeters toward banal hotel food, but for the most part is surprisingly good. The main course, Cabernet Chicken Chasseur with Lyonnaise potatoes and asparagus, and the lemon-strawberry trifle dessert are to die for.


Dinner and a Show: Teatro ZinZanni is the perfect excuse to break out fantastical styles.


Teatro ZinZanni, as its titular Love, Chaos & Dinner theme suggests, rallies around double entendres, gender illusion and sensuous liaisons. The food is an essential component of the presentation, and does much more than raise customers' low blood sugar. The service is the performance. Dinner theater--pastime of Florida retirees and last ditch for former Broadway big-timers--is re-energized by Teatro ZinZanni's provocative infusion of 1920s Weimar Berlin flash.

Teatro ZinZanni remains viable and theatrically fresh through a type of character-collage improv. Audience interaction is key, as actors impulsively hone their skills using enchanting circus-style antics set off by postmodern riffing. Linda the traffic warden sets the precedent by obnoxiously blowing her whistle, running through the crowd and screaming out a litany of don'ts (a reverse-psychology attempt to bring the staid crowd to life). Linda took a particular dislike to my cleavage, stuffing toilet paper down my front, taping it onto my chest, then wrapping the tape around the whole table. As everyone laughed hysterically she admonished me that cleavage was appropriate for Saturday night but not for Sunday.

There's nothing like one person's embarrassment to get the adrenaline pumping and start the audience bonding.

A cigarette girl, clad in a peach tulle and feather, sidled up to my table and purred in a petite sophisticate Parisian accent, "I have a note for you." She then demurely dropped it into my lap. The outside read "To Lady Diva," the inside read "Darling, that sexy dress you're wearing is fabulous. Where did you get it? Come over here and show it to me!" I glanced up to find a beautiful Indian woman in a bejeweled, dangly gown beckoning me to her table. That was just the beginning of our fun.

Later in the evening the cigarette girl morphs into uber-contortionist La Candela and performs a steamy contortion dance with fire. Trained from the age of 9, she received formal instruction from the Kiev State Circus School. The circus is apparently alive and well in the former Soviet Union and France as most of Teatro ZinZanni's members originate from there. Body humor and physical acting abound: Sergey Krutikov, the Moscow circus' Gentleman Juggler, performs eye-trickery with dinner plates; Les Castors, brothers Eddy, Toly and Charly, begin by juggling large Persian rugs with their feet and end up juggling each other; and Duo Mouvance, of David Letterman fame, do a hyper-sexy tango dance on trapeze that brings the house down.

Teatro ZinZanni works from a charmingly maximalist ethic as it piles on character after zany character, from Charlotte, the maid who just wants to be pretty, to Dick, the traveling salesman tap dancer, to creepy maitre d' Eugeniy Voronin or the impish Juliette, the dishwasher. Cookie's character, Le Chef, is an astounding drama queen who turns the introduction of dinner courses into Broadway-esque show stoppers. The hysteria climaxes when Cookie, transformed from doting French chef to drag queen, is thwarted in her dessert introduction and drops to her knees, pink curlers in hair, platforms flailing, and moans Gloria-ously, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille." Adorned with a white flower, Billie Holiday-esque Kim Nally sings the blues and lends the evening a 1920s Prohibition-era Harlem Renaissance charm. The Diva, opera singer Kristin Clayton, contributes a touch of sophistication. And of course Madame ZinZanni ties them all together and pays homage to ZinZanni's roots when she performs the cabaret signature "La Vie en Rose."

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From the April 3, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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