Send in the clowns

Just what does your ticket buy at 'Teatro ZinZanni'?

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: Drama critics rarely pay to see theater. There are good reasons for this, but it does tend to leave us woefully out of touch with the experience of other theatergoers. When friends ask me for recommendations, I'll occasionally say, "The show at X is pretty good, and the musical over at Y is worth catching." But when they tell me the ticket prices, I'm prone to reverse my decision. $45? For that? My mistake.

Teatro ZinZanni

222 Mercer St, 281-7788 ext. 700

ends January 17

Tickets for Teatro ZinZanni, the cabaret/circus/clown extravaganza, are pricey ($78-$150), even when you factor in the dinner that's included. In fact, they were expensive enough (by theater standards) to start me jotting down figures in my mental notebook as I walked to my table. Here are some results.

Part of what you're paying for is of course atmosphere. The teatro has this in spades and shovels. The evening takes place in an antique Belgian wooden tent that's been reassembled, complete with marquee and entryway, near the Seattle Center. Seats are covered in the same red velvet that billows from the tent's interior, mirrored panels run up columns and along the walls, and twirled gold posts running around the main room's circumference complement the merry-go-round effect. It's all European in a charmingly undefined manner, like something from a Fellini film that he never got around to making.

The original "spiegeltents" were designed as wine-tasting and dance halls, and there's surprisingly little room for performers, just a small cabaret stage at one end and a center area whose circumference can't be much larger than 10 feet. Any reasonable approach to such an evening would be limited to a few singers, perhaps a comedian or two, at most a soft-shoe number. It's simply impossible to fill a space this small with the fare of a European cabaret, such as magicians, clowns, elaborate dance numbers, acrobats, and comic skits.

Except they do.

Here's some of what you get for your entry fee: There's a clown who conducts the 1812 Overture despite its alarming tendency to run a little wonky on his CD player. You get aerialist/contortionist Aurelia Cats, whose ability to bend her legs behind her ears and then give a sly wink makes her probably the sexiest woman on whatever continent she is currently on. You get some accomplished European clowns, who look sadder and act funnier than their American counterparts, and spend time knocking each other around, playing musical instruments, and conducting elaborate romances and intrigues that we only get glimpses of. You get a tap-dancing civic activist who begins by protesting the show and before long is clattering on the tabletops. You get Ann Wilson of Heart and the Lovemongers singing sentimental songs, opera diva Anna Strazicich singing a few arias, and the pair of them in a duet. You get a mae d'hotel who spends the evening moving a sneer back and forth across his face, then provides a slow-motion magic show that deftly punctures his own pretensions.

As for the food, I leave extensive critiques to those who enjoy describing meals, and will only say that the opening-night menu, from the lightly marinated antipasti through the roasted butternut-squash soup, into the poached salmon and spinach salad, on to the herbal chicken au gratin, and ending in the whimsical "handkerchief" of puff pastry, was entirely delicious. But, as they say, presentation is everything, and here you have local comic prodigy Kevin Kent presenting each course in a different persona, which means that along with his Southern Baptist and wild Latino, he gets to wear some of the most elaborate dresses in the show. (It's a supreme pleasure to see Kent in a show that finally allows him to operate on full throttle as actor, comedian, and singer.)

You also get the proprietress, Madame ZinZanni, looking after your comfort, and you get occasionally drawn into the squabbles, affairs, and dance numbers of the performers. You get coffee. You get live music via musical director Norman Durkee.

My advice to my impoverished friends? Take out loans. Neglect your phone bill for a month. Borrow from your relatives. Whatever it takes, go see Teatro ZinZanni.

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