With a distressing news cycle — September the deadliest COVID-19 month for Illinois since winter; police and firefighters bucking vaccine mandates, Chicago violence unchecked by summer’s end — I found myself in need of a brief respite from reality.
In search of local entertainment to accomplish that goal, I found it at Teatro Zinzanni, a 2 1/2-hour show, a feast for the senses, running thru Nov. 28 at the downtown Cambria Hotel.
The comedic cirque show, the first to open to live audiences in the Loop after the pandemic shuttered theaters for 16 months, has been taking audiences on a riveting excursion at the enchanting Spiegeltent ZaZou — a recreation of the opulent, early 20th century European cabaret tents known for their red velvet and brocade, mirrors, stained glass and mahogany.
Not only was I transported by the astounding acts of acrobatics and contortion, the laugh-from-the-belly circus shenanigans and the gripping cabaret, but I was enchanted by the performers’ fascinating back stories. How I love stories.
This one begins with proof of vaccination required — and masks, except during your meal.
Cleopatra (Storm Marrero) awakens after 2000 years in a sarcophagus, entering a dinner joint where Chef Caesar (Frank Ferrante) and kitchen crew leader Marco Antonio (Joe De Paul) are preparing the nightly feast. The characters quickly whisk you through madness, mayhem and magic — drawing oohs and aahs at each new performance height.
There’s the acrobatics of mesmerizing trapeze artists Duo 19 (Oliver Parkinson and Cassie Cutler). They soar to the tent’s peak — twirling and flipping, catching each other and your heart that is in your throat, as upward you stare, speechless but for the gasps.
Then there are the extraordinary gymnastics of aerialist Lea Hinz, who ascends to the tent peak on a hoop from which she spins, drops, hangs; suspended only by feet or neck.
There’s contortionist Vita Radionova, a beast at hula-hooping — adding the thick circles thrown at her without missing a beat, one after the other, until you’ve lost count and she is consumed by a spiraling hoop barrel. She leaves your head spinning.
There is comedy, and magic tricks, slapstick, but no matter. On the wings of admiration and awe at these mind-boggling performances, its vaudeville material still elicits silly delight.
Then there’s the powerhouse vocals of Cleopatra. Marrero brings the house down, adding concert vibes to the cirque and comedy. And the vocals of her attendant, the singer Cunio, shakes the rafters.
Since this first show opened in early July, Broadway In Chicago (BIC) is back in full swing.
Tuesday marked the highly anticipated opening of Heidi Schreck’s Tony Award-nominated, Pulitzer Prize finalist play “What the Constitution Means To Me,” running Oct. 26-Nov. 7 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
One of the largest commercial touring homes in the country, BIC typically draws more than 1.7 million visitors annually to its five theaters, including the Cadillac Palace, CIBC, James M. Nederlander and Auditorium Theatres.
“What the Constitution Means To Me” had opened here in March 2020. The pandemic shut it down a month later. Teatro Zinzanni brought downtown’s theater lights back.
Fall offerings include the pre-Broadway premiere of “Paradise Square,” running Nov. 2-Dec. 5 at the Nederlander, about a New York City neighborhood where escaped former slaves and free-born African Americans welcomed Irish immigrants who were escaping the Great Famine. The groups lived harmoniously — until the deadly New York Draft Riots of July 1863.
As at Teatro Zinzanni, masks and proof of vaccination are required for all BIC venues.
“Nineteen months ago, we were bringing 1.7 million people into the theater district; then like a lightswitch, the pandemic turned it off. For 16 months, there was nothing happening,” said BIC Vice President Eileen LaCario.
“We were basically completely sidelined. Unlike restaurants, theater doesn’t take out. Now, it’s joy to see people back in the theater, back downtown. Whether we’re wearing masks or not, or showing vaccination cards or not, it’s still a wonderful experience.”
And that it was, for someone seeking brief break from reality.
And oh yeah, the stories. Ferrante is the same actor who, at age 23, racked up awards for the title role in Off-Broadway’s “Groucho: A Life In Revue,” written by Marx’s son, Arthur.
New York native Marrero made waves as the first Afro-Latina ringmaster ever to run the Big Apple Circus, in its 2019-2020 season. At this writing, Cleopatra is now being played by Liv Warfield, former vocalist for 3rdEyeGirl, the rock group created by the late artist Prince.
Parkinson is a former Mixed Martial Arts champion with a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry. He and Cutler made history in 2010 as the first American circus artists to perform in Havana, Cuba — since 1959.
Radionova is a former contestant on “America’s Got Talent,” making it to the quarterfinals during the show’s 2015 season.
Their fascinating back stories made these amazing performances that much more engrossing for this storyteller, and an enjoyable, if ever brief, escape from reality.