Frank Ferrante

Frank Ferrante, who starts in Teatro ZinZanni's new show. 

Teatro ZinZanni is unlike any other entertainment around. One of the first shows to reopen in the Loop combines circus acts, dinner theater, comedy, cabaret and copious amounts of audience participation into an extravaganza more than worthy of a Las Vegas showroom.

The conceit is that we're at the restaurant of Chef Caesar (Frank Ferrante), or “the Caesar” as he likes to refer to himself, on the night Cleopatra (Storm Marrero) has decided to start her next life after 2000 years. A chanteuse who really belts them out, she arrives in a gaudy, gilded sarcophagus, along with an entourage led by corset-and-stiletto-clad Cunio, who has a commanding voice and is described in the program as “the spawn of Freddie Mercury and Janis Joplin.” They join Caesar himself, decked out in sparkly attire and makeup (the beauty mark on his face keeps getting bigger), the alleged cook (clown and co-director Joe De Paul), a coterie of functionaries including a maintenance man and maid, and the actual servers.

All this takes place in the spiegeltent, an elaborately decorated round room with stained glass and mirrors, a soaring ceiling, a bandstand in one corner (with a very good band lead by pianist Bill Underwood) and a central round platform that rises from the floor and is accessed by several runways. They are put down and taken up as needed for the performers and mega-sized props like a golden chariot and pink elephant. We get to the spiegeltent by taking the elevator to the fourteenth floor of the Cambria Hotel, where we check in, are given a few instructions and table numbers, and then are seated.

Masks are optional for people who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 but those who haven't been vaccinated are requested to wear them. (As of Aug. 4, all guests over the age of 12 are required to show proof of full vaccination. Those who are younger and not eligible for the vaccine must wear masks except while eating.) However, there was no enforcement, nor was social distancing observed in any way. We were seated at a table with strangers without being asked about our vaccination status or theirs. All ZinZanni employees are required to be vaccinated, which is something of a relief as they often are in close contact with the audience. 

Teatro ZinZanni originally opened in Chicago in July 2019, only to be shut down by the pandemic less than a year later. This incarnation has new circus acts — and they are terrific. Ukrainian-born contortionist Vita Radionova manipulates more hula hoops that you can count. German aerialist Lea Hinz is as graceful as she is skilled on the cloud swing. Mickael Bajazet from France shows off unexpected talents in dance numbers. Perhaps most amazing of all is Duo 19, made up of Oliver Parkinson and Cassie Cutler, whose trapeze act to the tune of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is breath-taking.

These performers sometimes come as a surprise. They're hidden in other guises and costumes — Cutler is the maid mentioned above, for example — and work the room before their time in the spotlight. The same is true to a lesser extent of De Paul, who plays various roles as Caesar's short, pot-bellied sidekick — Marco Antonio at one point, even — but comes into his own with a long routine as King Kong destroying a cardboard-box New York.

While clowning involving cast members — there's also a slow-motion pie in the face bit — is more-or-less amusing (less for me, I admit), segments featuring the Caesar dragging up people from the audience quickly become tedious, despite his consummate skill as an ad-libber. In arguably the longest, he corrals three “volunteers” to audition as the next Caesar, commenting on their appearances, attire and professions, getting them to demonstrate how they dance and ultimately picking a winner — on my visit, a long-haired dude with red suede shoes he compared to Jesus Christ.

Most distressing (to me, anyway) was the fantasy the Caesar weaves using an elderly, white-haired woman, imagining he knew her in high school and taking her back in time to the high school prom. Not only was she kept standing on stage seemingly for ages as he went through his schtick, when dancing time came, he took away her cane. He held onto her so she didn't fall, and she seemed to be okay with all this, but all I could think was how uncomfortable she must have been.

A prix fixe meal is served during the course of the show, and not very surprisingly, comic sketches co-ordinate with each course. A couple from the audience, for instance, is instructed by Caesar in a love duet that involves feeding each other from a big bowl of Caesar salad.

The food itself, which is overseen by Debbie Sharpe of The Goddess and Grocer, is disappointing, particularly for the money. The opener is a little scoop of decent hummus with a few olives and pita bread “toasts” that taste dried out rather than toasted. The Caesar salad features romaine and possibly kale with shaved watermelon radish and flecks of cheese, but my “parmesan crisps” were limited to a single crumb, and there's no anchovy at all except perhaps in the dressing.

Of the four entree choices, the braised pork shoulder with mashed Yukon gold potatoes, roasted baby carrots and apricot mostarda isn't “agrodolce” (sweet and sour) as billed but has more flavor than the somewhat dry boneless chicken thighs with tiny peas (both in and out of edible pods) and leaden gnocchi in a white wine velouté mistakenly touted as “Vesuvio.” A table mate who tried the shrimp Campanelle pasta says it tastes like cafeteria food reheated in a microwave. The fourth choice is a wild mushroom risotto cake.

The generous chocolate mousse parfait with salted caramel, whipped cream and gold leaf ends the meal on a high note. There also are some a la carte appetizers and desserts, as well as cocktails, a pretty good wine list and wines by the glass. Rounding out the evening are a couple of opportunities to get up and dance.

Depending on whether or not you like circuses that are loud, raucous and way over the top, Teatro ZanZinni may or may not be for you. If you go, be prepared for an assault on your senses and be willing to take the chaff with the wheat.

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