Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: Teatro ZinZanni’s “Caliente” puts Latin fire in the old spiegletent

Christine Deaver heats things up in Teatro ZinZanni’s new show “Caliente: Too Hot To Handle,” under the ZinZanni tent at Pier 29 on the San Francisco Embarcadero through June 19, 2011. Photo: Tracy Martin

I made my first visit to Teatro ZinZanni on Pier 29 last October and the evening was magical—several hours of pure escapism into old-world cabaret.  Caliente: Too Hot to Handle is ZinZanni’s latest Latin extravaganza—offering an evening of dining and entertainment that draws on some of ZinZanni’s most successful traditions– cabaret style music, racy comedy, audience involvement, and dazzling acrobatics.  Caliente stars ZinZanni regular Christine Deaver and Robert Lopez in a rambling storyline, as a brother and sister duo, Tres and Cinco, who galvanize a team of kitchen workers to oppose the closure of their circus tent and realize their full potential.  Singer Rebekah del Rio stands out in the evening’s pastiche of dazzling acts as does Ann Bernard, one of world’s foremost interpreters of the Argentinian malambo dance.  Returning to awe audiences with their flexibility and physical bravado are the French comedic acrobat trio, Les Petits Frères, Ukrainian contortionist Vita Radionova, and Chinese aerialist Ling Rui.  Caliente is developed and directed by San Francisco’s own Ricardo Salinas, a founding member of the critically acclaimed Chicano/Latino performance trio known as Culture Clash which originated in 1984 in San Francisco’s Mission District.  Tobias Larsson, one of ZinZanni’s most popular artists, serves as choreographer.

You may have heard that some 80 businesses on San Francisco port property were notified in January that they will likely have to move to make way for the America’s Cup yacht race, scheduled for 2013.  Teatro Zinzanni  is one of them, so now is the time to visit.

Exteriors can be deceiving: there’s a party going on inside!

While Teatro ZinZanni has been in San Francisco since 2000, I suspect that many people drive by the large off-white tent on Pier 29 and chalk it off as something for tourists. 

Once inside, the magic begins…the energetic vibe is inescapable, uplifting.  Escorts in seductive cabaret-style costumes greet and guide you through the period-style lobby, and into the bar area, bustling like an elegant bordello.  There, you can get any number of exotic drinks and join 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.

Celebrated for her moving rendition of Llorando (the Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying) Rebekah del Rio plays Blanche, a repressed realtor, who finds her true self in song. Photo Mark Kitaoka.

 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

It’s relaxing to know that once you’ve arrived at ZinZanni, you’re here for the evening and everything, including dinner, is provided.  The pre-fixe gourmet meal is a full five courses, using seasonal and local ingredients, and is excellent considering the volume they do—about 285 people served all at the same time.  All the food is prepared off-site under the supervision of Chef Patrick Fassino of Restaurant TZ, and, when I visited, 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.  Current Menu: Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam Triple Cream Brie with castelvetrano olives, spiced almonds and crostini, Tortilla Soup with lime crème fraiche and blue corn tortilla strips,  Spinach and watermelon radish salad with mango and jalapeno vinaigrette,  entrée choice of herb-marinated roasted chicken breast with mascarpone polenta, chayote and salsa verde OR grilled fillet of beef with ancho chili butter, organic roasted potatoes and blue lake green beans OR jack cheese and vegetable tamales with black beans, salsa verde and salsa rojo, and caramel panna cotta or coconut cake and passion fruit mango sauce.  Dinner, matinee and wine menus change periodically and are online.   

A brigade of kitchen workers band together and move to the front of the house in Teatro ZinZanni's "Caliente" through June 19 at Pier 29. Photo: Mark Kitaoka.

A brigade of kitchen workers band together and move to the front of the house in Teatro ZinZannis "Caliente" through June 19 at Pier 29. Photo: Mark Kitaoka.

Theme: Job Insecurity

As Caliente gets underway, you soon discover that its theme cuts remarkably close to home with ZinZanni’s own staff and entertainers who face an uncertain future until their new location is cemented.  While the kitchen crew in a performance tent are readying themselves for the busy evening ahead, they receive shocking news from Mr. Ching (Chinese acrobat Ling Rui) who is the new owner’s son.  He tells them through his real estate broker/translator Blanche, (Rebekah Del Rio) that their tent is being razed and they are all out of jobs. Cinco (Robert Lopez) and his sister Tres (Christine Deaver) try to galvanize the staff to revolt but they are met with resistance from the fearful and disempowered workers. Fortunately, one of the workers discovers a loophole in their contract and they learn that they can put on one last performance.  What ensues over the course of the evening is the honing of this motley crew into performers and major attitude adjustment and empowerment as they begin to see themselves as much more than menial laborers.  While this is no political tour de force, Salinas does manage to reference a number of issues and current events impacting the Latino community.     Deaver and  Lopez ham it up as their characters live out their childhood fantasties in the Spiegletent–there’s a zany Donny and Marie theme and elements of Little Red Writing Hood.  

The great thing about ZinZanni is that its talent runs deep and when you least expect it, amongst the all-consuming zaniness that is ZinZanni, you can be blown away by the simple delivery of a song.  Rebekah Del Rio’s splendid “Que Sera, Sera,” coming near the end of the show, is worth the price of admission.  Del Rio has a new album out “All of My Life” that includes English/Spanish songs from Easy Listening to Latin Jazz and traditional Mexican Boleros.

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 just a few feet from you and that closeness makes all the difference between watching and being enthralled.   While this show is not as overtly packed with the circus tricks of past ZinZanni offerings, the performance offers a range of  physical acts that are smoothly integrated with music and involve other professional performers in the cast.    

It’s easy to be seduced by Ann Bernard whose elegant malambo performance on a circular wooden platform just a few feet from you builds in tension and complexity over a period of several minutes.  Bernard, who has performed all over the world, uses boleadoras (leather ropes with hard balls at the end) to beat out an energetic and increasingly frenzied malambo rhythm in 6/8 on the floor.  She matches this with tap dancing and as her shoes strike the floor over and over with precise movements, it evokes the gallop of horses.

Chinese acrobat Ling Rui (also plays Mr. Ching) who has been performing and training in circus arts since he was a child in Southeastern China’s Flag Circus of China gives an amazing aerial straps performance.  The discipline of aerial straps was originally a Chinese specialty involving athletes enacting intensely muscular tricks up and down the straps, much like moves on aerial rings.   Rui’s perfectly toned body, stretched horizontally in positions that are almost impossible to imagine, is breathtaking.

Ukranian contortionist Vita Radionova’s perfectly toned body moving in and out of seemingly impossible poses with ease makes for an incredibly sensual act that is a site to behold.

Les Petits Frères (Gregory Marquet, Mickael Bajazet, Domitil Aillot) who play a janitor, maitre-d’ about to lose their jobs perform a number of daring aerial tricks and gymnastics in “Caliente.” Photo: Tracy Martin.

Les Petits Frères (Gregory Marquet, Mickael Bajazet, Domitil Aillot) who play a janitor, maitre-d’ have been dubbed the “Floating Act” by the European press because of their unique ability to defy gravity with graceful aerial acrobatics.   The group was founded in 1993 at the acclaimed Annie Fratellini Circus School in Paris.At ZinZanni, you are sitting so close that you can see their every move. 

Late Night Cabaret Lunatique:  Teatro ZinZanni recently launched Cabaret Lunatique, a monthly series of hip and decadent Saturday midnight shows, each honoring a different San Francisco neighborhood. Coming tributes: North Beach on April 16; The Mission on May 14; and The Castro on June 11. Live music, singers, clowns, contortionists, dancing, specialty cocktails and a bar menu. Twenty-one-and-over.

Lunatique North Beach this Saturday evening (April 16, 2011):   Features local artists from the Bay Area including comedian Jeff Applebaum; interpreters of Argentine Tango Trio Garufa; aerialist Marina Luna; and contortionist Dwoira Scheffer. They will be joined by sizzling burlesque performer Bombshell Betty, tango dancers Julian & Lisette, clown Aji Slater, and ZinZanni favorite Christine Deaver!  Fantasy costumes welcomed.  Door open 11:15 p.m. Tickets $25 to $35. (415) 438-2668 or

Tickets: Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 6 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m. $117-$145 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

April 16, 2011 - Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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