Cafe Nordo and Teatro ZinZanni, Seattle’s prime dinner-theater attractions, are taking a breather from concocting new shows to revive hits from the past. That can be a safe proposition, or an iffy one, depending on the revamping — and how it stands up to the troupes’ more recent fare. In both cases here, making the old new again merits applause.
“The Modern American Chicken”
Nordo is reaching back to its very first show, presented in 2009, at the Theo Chocolate factory. “The Modern American Chicken” defined the Nordo brand as a distinctive mélange of locally sourced food, wacky theatrics, sparkling music and an eco-conscious reverence for what is eaten and imbibed.
“Modern American Chicken” delectably blends all the ingredients, in Nordo’s initial but still most fully realized show. The current version at Washington Hall follows its predecessor in many respects, but benefits from more spacious digs and new embellishments.
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Two informative, seductive hosts (played by Nordo regulars Maximillian Davis and Opal Peachey) narrate the poetic story of the brief, mostly pleasant life, of Henrietta the chicken — from nest to table.
Actor/waiters kibitz in character with us, too, as they serve an inspired menu that starts with a luscious chilled parsley-and-Crème Fraîche shot, and progresses to the pièce de résistance: the plump, succulent (and organic of course) Henrietta herself (or one of her kind) freshly roasted with house-made chicken sausage and habanero cherries. (Among the other courses is a heavenly Theo Chocolate panna cotta.)
Wound through the satisfying meal (there’s a veggie alternative, for those who insist) are some striking musical and visual effects (love those tall shadows on the high walls of this classy make-believe restaurant).
Terry Podgorski’s script gushes at times in its effulgent rhapsodizing about fowl. But this is part of the serious/satirical tone of the Nordo canon. And what impresses most is the inspired aura of a reverent, semi-surreal communal ritual created here by Podgorski and director/food designer Erin Brindley.
You share a table with other diners, and get chatting over drinks (wine and cocktails served) and chicken-carving. At my table one recent evening, all present had attended earlier Nordo shows. Somebody wondered if the mysterious Chef Nordo Lefesczki, whose praises are sung by his minions, really exists. (Let’s just say he’s in the shadows.)
We also had a lively exchange about whether Cafe Nordo events are primarily dinners with a side of show, or theatricales garnished with food. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, and seems to depend on what’s inspired you to spend $65 (without wine) or $80 (with wine flight) per ticket in the first place.
While some Nordo shows have excelled more at the grub than the dramatics, “Modern American Chicken” is an example of the special magic that can happen when the two are inseparable.
“Hail Caesar! Forbidden Oasis”
The show is truly the thing with Teatro ZinZanni, the long-running variety extravaganza in the ritzy antique cabaret tent parked across from the Seattle Center.
This edition, a gleefully gaudy banquet of aerial acts and acrobatics, tap dancing and clowning, all slathered with ancient-Egypt kitsch, could be a satisfying romp without the multicourse meal.
But Teatro ZinZanni has kept its Seattle franchise going for over a decade partly because dinner and drinks loosen up the crowds, and make for special-occasion, full-evening packages. (There are also children’s shows, midday matinees and an upcoming Nov. 21 15th-anniversary gala with guest chefs and “surprise” performances.)
It can’t be easy for artistic director Norm Langill to invent a new ZinZanni spectacle every few months, tailored to circus artists and comedians who tend to repeat their best stuff in production after production. Though the audience is invariably receptive, not all ZinZanni show themes (or dinner menus) are created equal.
After some recent stumbles, the company is back in the groove with “Hail Caesar! Forbidden Oasis” — previously presented in 2011, in ZinZanni’s (now-closed, but expected to reopen next year) San Francisco outpost.
The talent sizzles here, starting with singer-aerialist Dreya Weber as a slinky, regal and limber Cleopatra and Frank Ferrante as a lust-crazed, scene-gobbling Caesar. (Ferrante’s ribald, interactive improvs with selected victims/audience members are riotous master classes in working the crowd.)
Twinkle-toes tapper Wayne Doba and his pixie wife, Andrea Conway Doba, are more ’30s vaudeville than ancient Egypt, but they’re adorable, so who cares? And Seattle trapeze act Duo Madrona has never been better, in a routine that makes hanging in tandem by elbow, arm and ankle look easy and sexy.
Costume whiz Louise DiLenge has designed a plethora of eye-popping, mock-Egyptian duds, and choreographer Tobias Larsson’s dances are big fun.
And the Middle Eastern-ish dinner? So-so. Thumbs up for the golden lentil soup and a salad enlivened by arugula, brioche croutons and a very tasty lemon-tarragon dressing.
Misha Berson: email@example.com