Vaudeville lives in Seattle

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You enter through the doors of a dressed-up old Cadillac dealership, into a lounge that is comfortingly familiar, yet subtly strange. The 1910 Belgian "jewel box" spiegeltent sits inconspicuously to one side of the building. When you breach the portal between them, you are like Alice going down the rabbit hole-into a wonderfully idiosyncratic parallel universe called Teatro ZinZanni, where you are a character as well as a member of the audience.

The tent, named the Moulin Rouge, is one of just eight of its kind in the world. It's all velvet and stained glass and mirrors, and the patina of the hand-carved wooden pillars and the battered floorboards exudes a thousand nights of magic. You are escorted to your table amidst the elegance of a time and place you can't quite define.

The show begins slowly as dinner orders are taken and drinks are served. At times, the theatre arrives at your table-a nervous stranger muttering incomprehensibly, a waiter spilling an empty soup bowl.

The maíƒ ®tre d', Mr. P.P., is an antipodean Basil Fawlty. Soon chef Caesar, with a beauty mark the size of a plum on his cheek, is humiliating a buff yet bumbling patron, a ship's captain from Anacortes. "Ahoy," says the slightly effete chef. "I salute you, but you can't even tell."

A sarcophagus delivers Cleopatra-actually Martha Davis from the Motels-for a sultry show tune. Bobby, the dunderheaded waiter with tape on his glasses, turns out to be the best juggler you've ever seen. The tumblers and trapeze artists that served your salad perform impossible feats of derring-do above your table. The Ukrainian contortionist in Arabic dress is the sexiest woman in this or any other world.

Bandleader Norman Durkee, the guy with the Santa Claus beard, delivers a seamless accompaniment, with roots in cabaret and branches that explore a host of peculiar corners of 20th century music.

The music, the wisp of a story line, and chef hold all this vaudeville together. But it's 21st-century vaudeville, filtered through the eclectic mind of producer Norman Langill, the central figure in Seattle's legendary production company One Reel. The company began in 1972 when a bunch of Washington state theatre grads created the One Reel Vaudeville Show, which travelled throughout the Pacific Northwest in a vintage circus truck.

Now One Reel is best known as the producer of Seattle's Labour Day weekend Bumbershoot festival, a brilliant, compact frenzy of art, theatre, film, and music that overwhelms Seattle Center each September. For Langill, though, Teatro ZinZanni is a culmination of sorts, a return to One Reel's roots with the benefit of all the tools he's accumulated during a quarter-century of wide-ranging work in the arts.

The epiphany that led to the creation of Teatro ZinZanni took place in Barcelona during the 1992 Olympics, where One Reel was producing a "rice-farming musical". Langill walked into a tent that looked like "a big, round yurt".

"You don't expect to see what you do. It's so beautiful and so nostalgic. It's the nightclub of your dreams," Langill says on the phone from his Seattle office. "If you walk in and you're suddenly five inches off the ground, and nobody's done anything yet, you're ready to experience something new. When I saw it, I thought: 'This is what I was missing with One Reel Vaudeville.' I could control the entire drama of the audience…You're not at home; you're not in the office. Whatever status you have outside this room, it really is gone."

All good odysseys have a hitch, though. It took Langill six years to get that Barcelona tent. "I had to go and spend Christmas with the Belgian farmer that owned them and convince him that Americans are not a completely litigious society, that he wouldn't lose the tent."

When Teatro ZinZanni finally opened in Seattle, in the fall of 1998, it was slated for a six-week run. Now the company has another permanent spiegeltent in San Francisco, and Langill says invitations have been extended by another 20 cities.

It's not just the tent's inherent character or the performers' enormous talent that creates the magic, though. It's the sense of shared experience in an age where entertainment is an increasingly impersonal transaction. "In the 1960s, we were all dying to break the fourth wall. That's what we tried to do with One Reel," says Langill, who places the company's formative show in the "West Coast vaudeville" pantheon that includes clowns like Reverend Chumley and Pickles, the juggling Flying Karamazov Brothers, and the Oregon Country Fair. However, Langill says, they always did it the wrong way. "We wanted to jump off the stage, but really the audience wanted to be on-stage with us. That's the best seat in any concert, when you're sitting on stage with a group. In opera, I'd love to be on-stage in one of the big group scenes, with the opera singer singing to me. That's the best seat."

Although Teatro ZinZanni draws on its West Coast roots, it's ultimately a much more international blend of vintage American slapstick, British physical comedy, and German cabaret. The show constantly evolves to reflect the character and strength of each performer, particularly the clowns. "We do cast changes about every two months. You've really got to stay on it. It's not a complete change of show, it's a morphing, and morphing takes a lot more work," says Langill, who notes that Cirque du Soleil copes with long runs through "complete imitation of the original model".

That's why those 20 cities, including Vancouver, that have sought out Teatro ZinZanni are unlikely to get their wish. "Most of our projects are handmade," Langill says. "You can't really rip them up and move them around. Things decay when you do that." He notes that the dinner-theatre concept requires opulence that extends to such niceties as the washrooms. "It's not a widget. If you come, you're coming to stay."

As the show winds down, the audience is certainly in no hurry to depart. People linger at the tables, wander the floor, filter out through the lobby, and eventually step into the warm spring Seattle night. But just as Alice couldn't possibly forget the Cheshire cat, it seems unlikely their experience will leave them anytime soon.

"I've done a lot of shows, but not one where people walk away and say, 'That was the best thing I ever saw,'" says Langill, who's not bragging so much as revelling in his own good fortune. "Every artist, you spend your life trying to figure that one out. 'How can I really make a difference, or am I just something to fill time before the babysitter has to go home?'"

Norman Langill has figured a few things out in his career, but Teatro ZinZanni is his first fully functioning, certifiable international time machine.

ACCESS: Teatro ZinZanni's current production runs until May 29. Tickets are US$89, $109 on Saturday. A summer production begins June 2, running Wednesday to Sunday, with all tickets $99. The price includes dinner but not drinks or the $10 service gratuity. Tickets are available online at www.zinzanni.org/ or by phone at 206-802-0015. Teatro ZinZanni is located at 2301 6th Avenue, between Battery and Bell streets, not far from the Seattle Center.