ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

review–Teatro ZinZanni’s HAIL CAESAR through October 31…a madcap performance tossed up by two of history’s most famous lovers.

Dreya Weber as Cleopatra and Frank Ferrante as Caesar in Teatro ZinZanni's "Hail Caesar" through October 31, 2010. Photo courtesy of Cory Weaver

Love a wacky love story, saucy humor?  Teatro ZinZanni’s “Hail Ceasar!,” through October 31, will delight you to no end.  Imagine a resurrected Cleopatra—”Cleo”–with the take-charge bravado and killer bod of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” who falls head over heels for Caesar, a wise-cracking chef.  Toss in brilliant improv, stunning aerial acrobatics, spicy subplots, wonderful music and a five-course meal delivered by servers in satin bustiers.  Top it off with “love powder” and let yourself laugh hard.  That’s how I spent my Thursday evening.

 HAIL CAESAR! features Frank Ferrante as Caesar and acclaimed aerialist, actress and musician Dreya Weber as Cleo, an unforgettable Queen of the Nile whose heart pounds only for Caesar. ZinZanni has run various Caesar stories for the past decade, with a changing plot and a new set of performers every 4 months, but the run is about to end when Ferrante, the show’s anchor, goes to Philadelphia at the end of October.  If you’ve been wanting to catch this performance, do it now.  In addition to Ferrante and Weber, the current international cast of performers includes opera mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham, Australian Tim Tyler as the eccentric Mr. PP, Chinese acrobat sensations Ming and Rui, US National Champion gymnast Alexa Hukari, and Vertical Tango duo Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi. 

 Exteriors can be deceiving

Teatro ZinZanni has been around since 2000, combining sit-down dinner with theatre, music, comedy and very close-up Cirque du Soleil type acrobatics.  I had driven by the off-white tent that is Teatro ZinZanni on Pier 29 many times and chalked it off as something for tourists.  It took prompting from a fellow writer to get me to make the schlep into San Francisco from Sonoma County for a 6:15 pm arrival on a weekday.  I’m glad I did.    

Once inside, my world changed immediately…the energetic vibe was inescapable, uplifting. Escorts in seductive cabaret-style costumes greeted and guided me through the period-style lobby, and into the bar area, bustling like an elegant bordello.  I picked up my ticket and joined the line to enter the main tent—Le Palais Nostalgique, which is what all the fuss is about.  This splendid antique “spiegletent” (Dutch for “mirror tent”) is one of the few remaining hand-crafted traveling tents in use and it is every bit a star in the evening, defining the elegant and intimate mood.  Originally these spiegletents were constructed in the Flemish region of Belgium and served as mobile wine tasting pavilions and dance halls for thousands European locales lacking proper entertainment facilities.  Le Palais Nostalgique was built in 1926 and transported from Barcelona, Spain, to the United States for the first time in October 1998, especially for Teatro ZinZanni.  

 The luxurious interior is a site to behold.  At twenty-nine-feet tall, and with a circumference of over 200 feet, the circular antique theater can accommodate about 275 people and still feel intimate.  Every seat has a view and excellent acoustics but those closest to the center, where the performance occurs, are best.  The dining and performance areas are swathed in plush velvet, with lush drapes sporting antique tassels and gold brocade.  

Dinner is Served

Dinner is an integral part of the plot and entertainment.  The pre-fixe gourmet meal is a full five courses, using seasonal and local ingredients, and is excellent

Frank Ferrante is Caesar and Dreya Weber is "Cleo," a love-struck Cleopatra in Teatro Zinzanni's "Hail Caesar" through October 31. Photo courtesy of Eye of Passion.

considering the volume they do—about 285 people served all at the same time.  All the food is prepared off-site, yet everything arrived appropriately cold or warm and exquisitely staged.  I tried and recommend the wine pairing menu– five 2.5 once tasting portions, $38 prix fixe. (Dinner, matinee and wine menus change periodically and are online.)   The courses are delivered with escalating fanfare by the cast and servers about every 40 minutes.  Each course– appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, dessert—relates to the musical.  Prior to salad, for example, Caesar woos a special lady with an outrageously huge veggie necklace, a cheesy gesture that somehow works.  

Ferrante –the eternal and comedic Emperor of Love

Frank Ferrante is foolproof–Zinzanni’s comedic anchor.  Like all master improvisers who work spontaneously with audience members, he asks a question, listens intently and then seemingly, without thinking, pounces.  Through a quick series of exchanges, he gets into some very interesting and provocative stuff, aware of the line between suggestive and crude.  His conversation with a Rahluca, a blonde Romanian bombshell in stilettos and a low-cut dress, opened like this—

“You’re a beautiful woman, what is your name?”

“Rahluca”

“Ahh, ‘Rahluca,’ that was my second guess.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine?  You just made the cut.  What do you do for a living, Rahluca?”

“I have my own business.”

“I bet you do.  What is it?”

“Car leasing.”

“At my age, I only lease, I refuse to buy.”  

Aeriaist Dreya Weber combines graceful artistry with extreme atheleticism as she takes to air, performing on twisted fabric ropes. Photo courtesy of Eye of Passion.

Later in the evening,  he selected three men from the audience, each a cliché of maleness, to bat about.  In anyone else’s hands, this could easily deteriorate into something tired and worn but Ferrante keeps it fresh and hopping.  You don’t really need to think about any of it, it just flows.  But it’s actually very hard work.  In the performance I attended, Ferrante had to contend with a woman–either drunk or crazy–who got up and tried to insert herself into the act several times.  A 38 could not have stopped her, but he kept his cool and zinged her into submission.  There’s only one clown in the room and it’s Ferrante.

The Dreya Factor: A Cleopatra of the Air with killer abs

The chemistry between Ferrante and new leading lady Dreya Weber is magical.  Weber, as the sultry Cleo, initially pursues Caesar in song but he isn’t interested and flirts it up with the audience instead.  Weber takes to the air literally—in a stunning aerial performance—and it is hard to take your eyes off that perfectly conditioned body that must be at least 40, with not an once of flab.   As Weber elegantly swings and drops from a twisted fabric rope, frequently landing in full center splits just feet from you, you can see her breath and her muscles contracting.  A renowned aerialist, Weber has choreographed several aerial acts for stars like Madonna, Cher, and Pink, including Pink’s performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards.  You may also recognize her as the chief female model and lead demonstrator for the P90X workout program developed by Tony Horton, or remember her performance  in the film “The Gymnast,” which she also produced.    Weber can sing and act and adds emotional resonance to the show.  As Cleo and Caesar gradually reveal their soft sides, it is not hard to imagine they are actually in love.   Ferrante admits that their chemistry is real—“We are wearing costumes and grease paint but underneath all of that, for this to work, there has to be a real connection to make it special and we have that in real life. …Dreya is a Cleopatra who is in the air, of the sky, a goddess.   She is ethereal.  My character is of the earth, and his desires come from down below, but we find out that they have much in common.  As Cleopatra the woman, she has these passions, appetites and we are both hungry.   As leading characters in the ring together, that makes for an interesting evening.   How lucky am I that every night I get to kiss Cleopatra?”

Husband and wife duo Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi, (from Sausalito) as a bookish Egyptologist and a Scottish waiter, do an astonishing sensual “vertical tango,” wooing each other in beautifully choreographed tango moves on a pole. Photo courtesy of Cory Weaver.

Physicality—European Cirque-style

The enthralling combination of aerial acrobatics that involve legs and arms being supported in unnatural positions by a nothing more than a long rung of twisted fabric is something we’ve become familiar with thanks to Cirque du Soleil.   At Teatro Zinzanni, it all unfolds on a small platform  just a few feet from you and that closeness makes all the difference.   The sheer physicality of this performance is exceptional AND it is smoothly integrated with dancing and music and involves other professional performers in the cast.    

Vertical Tango husband and wife duo Sam Payne and Sandra Feusi, (from Sausalito) as a bookish Egyptologist and a Scottish waiter do an actual “vertical tango,” wooing each other in beautifully choreographed tango dancing, passionately weaving up, down, and around each other and scaling a 20 foot pole.  The couple performed for years in Cirque du Soleil’s “Saltimbanco” and their perfectly toned bodies stretched horizontally in positions that are almost impossible to imagine, along with their fiery passion, make you feel as if you are watching a very private form of communication.   

Particularly impressive is Tim Tyler  as Mr. PP, a Safari clad explorer character who combines a prissy head-master vibe with outrageous mouth juggling skills and acrobatics.  Before making an important phone call, Mr. PP nervously coughed up nine! ping-pong balls and then juggled three of them simultaneously, using his throat and mouth muscles.   

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A chat with Frank Ferrante who leaves ZinZanni on October 31st

Geneva Anderson:  You always play Caesar but the plot changes.  Do you have input into the story?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Frank Ferrante:  I do have input and lots of flexibility.  I started in San Francisco in 2001 and this is my 9th year at ZinZanni—two tents, one here and one in Seattle.  They came up with this because I had been working the material for a few years and I think it was Norman Langill’s (founder, artistic director) way of saying we like what’ve you’ve been doing here, let’s do a show that’s built around Caesar and his adventures.  That was very flattering and that was 5 or 6 years ago.  We’ve done several different stories and this one here feels brand new and Dreya is new to this show.  We are both here until the 31st with this run and then we both leave.  I go to Philadelphia to the Walnut Street Theatre to do a new show based on the Caesar character called Caesar’s Palace O’ Fun.  ZinZanni changes the show every 4 months and they are having a whole new show come in “License to Kiss,” with a new cast the first week of November. 

GA:  How do you size up the audience and figure out who you are going to work with?

Frank Ferrante:  It’s a mixture of knowing there are certain types that are in your back pocket that I can play with and I scan the audience for them…and sometimes I just wing it, creating the context as I go.  You don’t want people who are hambones, who are showy.  There’s only one clown in the room and that’s me.  You want someone who’s going to be fairly straight….but then they can be outrageous in their own way, in their responses about their profession, etc., or interaction with you.  You try to hedge your bets but your chance to fully control what’s happen is impossible.  That’s what I love about what I do.

GA:  How did you get used to working with aerialists and all the theatrics that unfold in the show, in addition to the comedy?                                                                                                                      

Frank Ferrante:    I had never done anything like that until ZinZanni 9 years ago and it’s such a different experience, it took me a couple of years to get my footing.  I come from the theatre—directing, acting in regional theatre, New York–and I did a play about Groucho Marx in New York and London but those were straight acting jobs.  For this, I had to watch and adjust and just survive the cirque world experience.  It is simply a different experience.  ZinZanni maintains and promotes a great American tradition of comedy that evokes a sense of yesterday—Zero Mostel, Jackie Gleason, Groucho, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jack Benny.  There’s a bit of that in what I do and you’ll find the European traditions in ZinZanni as well.  It was strange thing to get used to, but basically we are all in the same boat…all trying to be the best we can be… but when we get used to it, and when it all comes together, it is magical.  The production staff designers, crew are brilliant.  And it’s a beautiful production–the costumes are beautiful, it’s beautifully lit and there’s something very unique about the setting that many Americans haven’t experienced.  They’ve been to Cirque d’Soleil, maybe Broadway, but this is distinct.

 GA:  There seems to be something very special about your interaction with your current leading lady Dreya Weber. Your chemistry with her is fantastic.

Frank Ferrante:    We’re very close.  We understand each other and we have affection for each other and we both take our work seriously–we have the same attack and question every word that we utter.   That is our attraction.  We consider ourselves the “Lunt and Fontanne” of Pier 29 (Husband and wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, 1920’s-1940’s, are widely considered the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.)  We never worked together until this show and, in rehearsals, she was a kick in the pants and a real joy.   What is great for me is that we have the comedy juxtaposed with scenes of passion.

GA:  What moves it beyond the cliché of “dinner theatre”?  

Frank Ferrante:    We are both trained actors and have similar theatre references too.  We are trying in the show to give people something that is both low brow and high brow and that is pretty rare.  It’s vaudeville really with body elements and it has elements of a play and a musical and somehow it all works in its own way, as a strange amalgamation of styles.

GA:  How do you keep it fresh, do the performance over and over and bring newness into      it?                                                                                                                                                                                              

Frank Ferrante:    It is fresh because, for me, the audience is a character apart from Dreya and the other cast members.  The audience is my lover and I need them in the show–their laughs, their response– to play off.  Every night the audience is new, so I have unsuspecting petrons to work off of every day and I never get bored.

GA:  Who is your favorite live comedian and why?  I know that you have a long association with Groucho Marx and are still performing “An Evening with Groucho.”

Frank Ferrante:    My favorite living comedian from that era of comedy that I love is Sid Caesar who was able to clown but able to be truthful.  And what makes those scenes I do with Dreya work is that they are honest—the improv I do is actually fairly autobiographical and points to some truths about ourselves.  I like that I say things that people wish they could say and I do things that people wish they could do.  I can really say it all and do it all and it’s greeted with laughter and that’s very cathartic.  I love the tradition of comedy that I come out of which is linked to Groucho and to Sid Caesar, really to another time.  Caesar walked that line between outrageous and truthful like a genius.  All the great comedians tell the truth on some deep level.…and if you don’t tell the truth, the audience smells it and they drop down to another level of engagement.

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Tickets: $117-$195 for a five course meal and 3 hour performance, plus a $12 per guest dining room service charge applied to your beverage bill.  All beverages are separate and are available at the bar before entering the dining area and inside, during the evening performance.  A wine pairing menu which pairs 5 local wines with each of the courses runs $36. 

Seating:  The circular tent seats about 285 people in an arrangement of concentric seating that includes both booths and table.  All tickets are sold under “General Admission and seating is arranged by the Maitre d’ who assigns your seats the night you attend, “restaurant style.”  The best seats are premium seats, closest to the center of the tent.  There are 7 premium tables which seat four and 4 premium tables for two.

Box Office Phone (415) 438-2668 or buy directly online.

Current Menu: Cowgirl Creamery Peirce Point Cheese with marinated olives, spiced almonds and crostini, Corn Soup, Heirloom Tomato Salad, Grilled Pork Flat Iron with yukon gold mashed potatoes and peach chutney, Honey Chibouste & Hazelnut cake.  All arrived appropriately cold or warm and exquisitely staged.  My only complaint was that baby frissee in my heirloom tomato salad was like cardboard and many people left it on their plates.  Dinner, matinee and wine menus change periodically and are online.   

Be warned, while it is clearly written on the web page and repeated by your server, there is a $12.00/person additional “dining room” service charge that will be added to your bill.  

Parking is available at Pier 29, directly behind the tent with direct access to Teatro ZinZanni, for $10.00 through an automated machine that takes cash and credit cards.

October 3, 2010 - Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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