Spice Up Your Circus


Show #40: Caliente, Teatro Zinzanni, April 30.

Robert Lopez and Christine Deaver in Teatro Zinzanni’s Caliente. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

By Sam Hurwitt

Being greeted by backstage crew and kitchen staff brandishing “Workers United” and “Power to the People” signs may not be what people expected when they splurged $120 to $200 on a five-course gourmet dinner and stellar circus show in an elegant 100-year-old Belgian Spiegeltent at Pier 29. But that’s part of the charm of Caliente, the first Teatro ZinZanni show directed by Culture Clash‘s Ricardo Salinas, which injects a subversive San Francisco Mime Troupe-style vibe of proletariat rabble-rousing into a posh, decadent night out.

ZinZanni changes up the show every few months—the next one, Maestro’s Entertainment, starts June 23 with legendary singer Joan Baez and illusionist Vorodin—and each incarnation has its own distinct (and loose) storyline. Previous versions I’ve seen have featured favorite local clowns Geoff Hoyle and Ron Campbell (not at the same time) as the chef.

In Caliente, the idea is that this time the workers behind the scenes are in charge. Mr. Ching, a Chinese businessman in a shiny silver suit (Ling Rui), arrives and his translator and business associate Blanche Rivers (Rebekah Del Rio) explains that a corporation has bought out the pier for future development, and the show is being shut down. (In actual fact, it looks like ZinZanni will have to relocate because that entire stretch of waterfront is being cleared out for the America’s Cup yacht race in 2013.) The ragtag kitchen staff and crew goes on revolt and decides the show must go on.

Their leader is Cinco, a wiry guy in a hairnet and thick-framed glasses, played forcefully by Robert Lopez, better known as El Vez. Christine Deaver is hilarious as his formidable sister Tres, in a variety of outrageously loud getups designed by Beaver Bauer.

More than revolutionary solidarity in the service industry, though, Caliente is a celebration of Latino culture, most of all its kitsch. Its first ensemble number is a “let’s get loud, let’s get proud” song in the mode of Santana’s “Smooth.” In a faceoff with the corporate types (booooo!), a West Side Story gang dance morphs into “Thriller” choreography, and Lopez delivers a powerful poem pointing the lack of Latino characters in Peanuts (“Hey Charlie, I’m brown”) in front of collages of great pop-cultural Latinos Ricardo Montalban, Zorro, Carmen Miranda, Dora the Explorer, Speedy Gonzales, Cheech Marin and Rita Hayworth. “Dude, you’re in America now—speak Spanish!” Cinco tells Mr. Ching.

There’s always a fair amount of audience participation in ZinZanni shows, with a few people drafted to come onstage and participate in comic bits, but these are awfully well done in Caliente, mostly just because Lopez and Deaver are so dang funny. One audience draftee comes up to play the wolf to Deaver’s Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood).  Another has to do shots with her bandolero-draped revolutionary who says Mexican men used to be macho but now they’re all “gatitos—los pussies,” so she’s prowling the room in search of a real man.

Served between acts by waiters in sharp suits and fedoras and waitresses in lacy lingerie-style getups, the dinner is superb, featuring either an herb-marinated roasted chicken breast with mascarpone polenta, chayote and salsa verde; grilled filet 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. You’ll be torn between wanting to eat quickly so as not to miss a second of the entertainment and wanting to savor each bite.

One of the marvelous things about ZinZanni is having dazzling circus acts going on right next to you, and this incarnation doesn’t skimp on that score. Ann Bernard’s giggly handyman Anita turns a goofy ersatz-karate dance with hilarious facial expressions into a marvelous percussive Argentine malambo dance with stomps and whirling boleadoras (cords weighted with balls). The nerdy seamstress played by Vita Radionova whips off her glasses and unassuming clothes like an ugly duckling in an ‘80s movie and is suddenly stunning, doing an utterly magnetic hula hoop act, and she and Mickael Bajazet’s impish plate-spinning busboy Coco do a spellbinding, steamy acrobatic Latin dance.

Domitil Aillot’s somber janitor Gaston goes from pushing around a mop (and inevitably dancing with it a bit) to clambering up a pole and doing a riveting, short balance act. Gregory Marquet’s stuffy maitre d’ Jacques with hair gelled into horns and Coco do a very funny Elvis-style rendition of “Fever” (not El Vez-style—that’s another act altogether). Marquet, Bajazet and Aillot are a trio called Les Petits Frères that comes together for a dazzling showstopper slapstick tumbling act to Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” toward the end.

Soon, of course, the corporate lackey starts to show her humanity. Blanche Rivers, born Blanca Rios (of course), dreams of being a singer, and lo and behold she starts singing passionately just in time for everyone to get up and slow-dance with their dates just when their butts are getting tired. Among the songs Del Rio sings is a lovely medley of “Cucurrucucu Paloma” and “Que Sera Sera.” Finally even Rui’s Mr. Ching gets into the spirit with a very intense aerial act dangling from his wrists.

By the time the Day of the Dead-themed finale rolls around, it’s just chipotle glaze on this sumptuous feast for the senses. By that point your eyes, ears, mouth and funny bone will all have been well fed.

Caliente plays through June 19 at Teatro ZinZinni. Pier 29, the Embarcadero at Battery, San Francisco. http://love.zinzanni.org

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