Teatro Zinzanni Sends in the Clowns

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It’s not easy being a clown.

Not the kind with frizzy hair and embarrassingly big feet. I mean that certain breed of performer that doesn’t hold as much clout in the world as it used to—the kind you may remember from Sylvain Chomet’s heartbreaking animated film The Illusionist.

These performers—the acrobat, the diva, the contortionist, the ventriloquist, and even the Master of Ceremonies—who all feature in Teatro Zinzanni’s current show Bonsoir Liliane! (showing through January 29, 2012), often stake their careers on achieving an ultimately simple prize: showing people a good time.

Mind you, right now, temporarily forgetting our troubles and witnessing the impossible become possible doesn't seem such a flip notion.   

A friend of mine studied in the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program, and as a small part of his training, got to practice basic clown techniques. In his opinion, performing as a clown is all about seeking approval. Pull the handkerchief out; look at the audience, smile slyly. Pull it out further. Repeat.

A clown doesn’t make a decision without first consulting the eyes in the dark. A clown must connect with the audience before demanding them to laugh. In other words, the efforts of a clown are not accidental.

And luckily, for those that can afford to attend Bonsoir Liliane!, there are many talented clowns to find here.

 The show is several short acts assembled to form a loosely autobiographical story about events in leading lady Liliane Montevecchi’s life.

I'm not sure where the line between fiction and truth lies exactly, but it seems fair to say that it's a life that has been lived in many spotlights, from Russian stages to American television screens.  

Welcomed aboard the “Red Swan Express,” the audience is transported down Montevecchi's memory lane to Russia, France and India. Inside our "train car," cute waitresses in adorable conductor hats deliver delicious food (thank you, chef Erik Carlon for that pumpkin soup, among other delicious things) and complement each course with a dorky, though spirited, song and dance.  

The show tilts between musical numbers, acrobat stunts, comedy routines and even one opportunity for audience members to stand up and enjoy a romantic slow dance with their loved ones.

The fast-moving affair is captained by a gregarious – and sassy – M.C./conductor played to perfection by Zinzanni veteran Kevin Kent (below).

It’s worth the hefty ticket prices alone to see men of all ages in the audience cringe as Kent surveys the crowd for his next victim, who will round out the “audience participation” bit (which hopefully earns the poor souls selected a round of drinks).

Every move Kent makes is backed by expert improv skills – or his uncanny ability to predict exactly who his audience members are, and where their boundaries are flexible.  

I couldn’t keep up with his savvy, off-the-cuff banter, even before the wine. So I sympathized for the vulnerable young soul from Eatonville who ended up in the spotlight, wearing Kent’s dress (the one you see above), before dessert.

Montevecchi’s Auntie Mame persona keeps up with Kent in sheer audacity. She's a petite older woman, but she has shockingly flexible legs (which she is unafraid to show off) and a voice that sometimes talks through and sometimes blasts out standard numbers like “La Vie En Rose” and “Diamonds Are Forever.”

Her performance feels like old school Hollywood. And her story—the familiar story of an older performer coming to terms with her impending curtain call—lends balance to the Marx Brothers carnival playing out around her.

So, when we're not marveling at what Ukrainian contortionist Vita Radionova can do in spite of the typical rules of a human rib cage – or the terrifying free falls of Les Petits Freres (an adorable trio of French acrobats), we take deep dives into a darker story, which delivered up all the emo stuff I need to recover from the "Buzz, Buzz, Buzz" salad song:

A fighting dance between two sailors that evolves into a love triangle (or maybe that’s just the third glass of wine interpreting); a moody ballet bar exercise from Ariana Lallone (former principal at PNB) in which the dancer finds the technique is not as easy as it used to be (how could I not, in the moment, project the circumstance of Lallone's recent retirement onto the scene and imagine the drama as being slightly real? Though I'm sure it isn't.); and, of course, the touching performance of “Send in the Clowns” by Montevecchi, sung while her delicate frame perched above the crowd on a moon-shaped swing.

Emo, indeed.

Of course, thanks to the more dominant lighter moments­—spinning hula hoops and groin injury gags included—the ultimate effect on me was as the clowns probably would have really wanted it:

At the end of the show, the muscles in my face literally ached from smiling.