It didn’t take long Thursday night at Teatro ZinZanni for The Caesar — a.k.a. the dinner theater production’s emcee/ringmaster/clown-in-chief — to get loud about the return of in-person, live theater to Chicago’s Loop.
Three times, the last with the audience roaring along, The Caesar (Frank Ferrante) roared toward the heavens: “We are here!” Part battle cry, part defiant declaration, all unbridled exuberance, it was a fittingly raucous and celebratory moment.
Well, as celebratory as one can get with COVID-19 still lurking. While vaccinations are mandatory for all staff and performers affiliated with the show, there is no such mandate for patrons. Masks also are not mandated (but are encouraged for the unvaccinated) for audience members like the ones who entered the grand Spiegeltent on the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel for Thursday’s opening night — the first the Loop has hosted since the lockdown last March. Two friends of mine were quickly moved to another table after they found out they’d been seated with an unvaccinated couple in the near-capacity, 200-person dining room where the show is punctuated by a meal created by the Goddess and Grocer’s Debbie Sharpe. Opening night, there weren’t many empty seats, nary a vestige of social distancing and few masks.
ZinZanni originally opened back in July 2019 only to fall victim, along with the rest of the theater world, to COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns the following year. Certain key elements — namely Ferrante and master clown/co-director Joe DePaul — remain intact. The rebooted and retooled acts are fantastically over-the-top and more than diverting enough to make you momentarily forget we’re emerging from a pandemic. Truly, there’s nothing like top-drawer aerial artists, contortionists, a one-person ode to King Kong, a golden chariot pulled by fluttering doves, a couple seducing each other with lettuce, and a pie floating in extreme slo-mo toward an unsuspecting Cleopatra to take your mind off your troubles.
The aforementioned Spiegeltent is reminiscent of a lobby/bar/theater space serving décor that’s “Eyes Wide Shut” by way of Liberace’s mansion and a Moulin Rouge floor show. With RuPaul’s “Sissy That Walk” featured prominently in the preshow music, the champagne bar, the regular bar and a gift shop selling pricey tiaras take on the feel of a catwalk.
There are kinks, so to speak, during the nearly three-hour production directed by ZinZanni founder Norm Langill, with Ferrante joining DePaul as a co-director.
The biggest issue: Way. Too. Much. Audience interaction. Non-professionals, a.k.a. people you wouldn’t pay to see, take up about 20 minutes of stage time. A bit involving a dance-off among three audience members has a great denouement, but it was a long, repetitious time coming. Audience interaction inevitably brings out some himbo who thinks they’re funnier than the professionals and while Ferrante is a master at breaking the fourth wall, (“You look like every Republican senator I’ve ever met.”), he resorted to shouting “SIT THE HELL DOWN” when a guy in front didn’t get the directive the first few times.
The irritants fade when the performers get the spotlight. The plot is incidental: We’re in The Caesar’s restaurant, where Cleopatra has decided to hang out after 2,000 or so years in a sarcophagus.
As The Caesar and Marco Antonio (DePaul) bombastically extol the beauty of Cleopatra (Storm Marrero), she emerges from the tomb, a royal for the ages. When Marrero launches into “Sympathy for the Devil,” it sounds like the music is welling up from somewhere ancient, an offering from the Gods of Belt. Marrero isn’t the only one with pipes. The single monikered Cunio boasts both an eerie falsetto and a rocker’s growl worthy of an arena, all while rocking six-inch ruby slippers.
Hula-hooping contortionist Vita Radionova turns centrifugal force into ethereal beauty as she morphs into a human slinky. Oliver Parkinson and Cassie Cutler (Duo 19) do a trapeze pas de deux to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” that is every bit as hallucinatory as you’d expect. Aerialist Lea Hinz and dancer Mickael Bajazet evoke old-time Hollywood with a delightfully Chaplinesque duet. A live, five-piece onstage band conducted by Bill Underwood adds intensity and drama to the acts.
The other area that needs work is the dining service. Our silverware arrived about 10 minutes after our entrees. By the time we had finished, the people sitting behind us hadn’t yet been served. Sharpe’s menu includes a choice of entrees, hummus and olives, Caesar salad and chocolate mousse; drinks and appetizers run $7 - $16.
The bit that leaves the biggest impression, however, belongs to DePaul, a clown worthy of Sir Toby Belch, or any other of Shakespeare’s magnificently foolish wits. It all starts as a random celebration of nonsense: There’s a shoe filled with celery, a to-the-skivvies striptease in a garbage can, a beheaded Barbie, a fleet of paper airplanes, a paper box. DePaul takes seemingly random lunacies and turns them into a one-person re-creation of one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time. When it suddenly comes into focus, you will be not only laughing, but outright guffawing and you won’t give a darn about missing silverware.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.