Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams

Gillian and I recently saw a mediocre movie called Yes Man, starring Jim Carry. Personally I thought the movie Stranger than Fiction got across the same message (embracing opportunity) is a far more moving way with a lot more to say…

Wow, that’s the shortest it’s ever taken me to derail my own line of thought. Okay, back to Yes Man. Okay movie, but I must admit that when a couple of people came in offering tickets to Madame Zingara’s the movie was in the back of my mind, and made me say yes when I might otherwise have politely said no.

My job at the bookstore isn’t without its perks. I’ve gotten free theatre tickets to “Dirty Dancing” (which I was surprised to learn was not the nauseatingly chick story I expected), and later to “Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Drury” (I knew nothing about British Punk, so this was an education as well entertaining).

But in the past couple days people coming into my store with requests haven’t been wholly comfortable. For one thing there was a woman who came in wanting to interview me on video about my thoughts on sex addiction (I did it, but felt unprepared for it) and later a person trying to get people to sign a petition regarding prostitution (I signed, but again, felt uncomfortable, and read up on the issue first before doing so).

So when some people came in offering free (sorta) tickets for Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams, I was on the fence. Partly because they mentioned the only charge to us would be a service charge and any drinks we get. That raised alarm bells, the kind where you assume there is some kind of trick involved.

But then something in me said “say yes” so did I. What the hell, should be fun.

I arranged things with Gillian and we went the following night. I met Gillian at the Starbucks next to where she worked, and surprised her by showing up wearing my best (er only) suit (which I’ve only ever worn twice before, one of those times being our wedding). Kinda silly riding the bus dressed like that, though.

Anyway, Madame Zingara is one half posh dinner and one half Cirque de Solier. And it does indeed take place in a giant tent (though far posher and smaller a tent than most circuses would use, it had perhaps two hundred customers and it was packed). There were four courses given, and entertainment between each course.

What really struck me as amazing about the circus acts was how it made me learn to appreciate the blatantly fake – by this I mean performances that do not pretend to be anything other than entertainment – and perhaps gave me a vague glimpse into history. Growing up I always had a problem with this. The real was always more interesting than something staged and fake. If something was fake someone was trying to trick me, and I didn’t like that one bit.

When Wyatt and I went to a carnival in Australia as teenagers, this kind of fakeness was everywhere. I felt uncomfortable everywhere I went there. We went and saw the carnival’s fat man, and it was unbelievably embarrassing. He certainly didn’t seem like he wanted any of us gawking at him. Pay, get in, and get the fu*k out, you bother me.

If you ever read the book “Carter Beats the Devil” young Carter experiences a similar feeling with the carnival’s “tall man” which resonated so closely with me it made me shudder.

And I’ve never been a huge fan of Western circuses, either. My memories of them (I think I went to two) were a mixture of fun and disappointment. Fun because there was popcorn and candy floss, and there were stunts going on, but disappointment because we were always so far away from the centre ring it lost a lot of its reality. It’s my believe that once you are beyond a certain distance, what you see doesn’t register in your brain as really happening in your presence, but “elsewhere.” Might as well be on TV.

Maybe I simply had my hopes up too high back then, too, but I distinctly remember that the circus we went to wasn’t as fun as TV had made me think it would be.

Now, later on Wyatt and I saw a different circus altogether. Cirque de Solier – Quidam. That was a whole other kind of circus, as anyone will tell you. It was an experience, the way Fantasia was meant to be an experience, blending sight and sound in a series of vignettes, some straightforward and logical, others bizarre and surreal.

Madame Zingara has a definite kinship with the Cirque de Solier school of performance, but it is something else entirely as well. From the start I was under its spell. The show made me believe I was watching something that people might have experienced hundreds of years ago. Updated, of course, but not reinvented or twisted into something sterile and commercial like Barnam and Baileys.

Hmmm… commercial. Funny term, that. I mean, what Madame Zingara’s does is by its very definition commercial. But what I’m referring to here is the difference between a fast food diner in the 1950s and McDonalds, or a local coffee shop privately owned and Starbucks. No, there was something organic and natural about this show, and it echoed how I imagined troupes must have performed in the past… though I doubt they ate nearly as well as we did.

First comes an appetizer, consisting of a blue-cheese and spinach soup (in a small cup) hummus, bread, olives and tzatziki. Though it was a very small serving of soup it was shockingly good.

The first act consisted of the evening’s host, a man on sheepskin covered stilts and horns, playing the role of Pan, along with a woman. Their banter helped set up the mood for the evening, talk of gods and temples, dream and fantasy, and sensuality. Oddly enough it was this introduction that made me realize – perhaps for the first time – what it was I never saw in these shows before. And nobody can express what I mean better than the Bard himself, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If we shadows have offended
think but this, and all is mended
that you have but slumbered here
while these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme
no more yielding but a dream
Gentles, do not reprehend,
If you pardon, we will mend.

My point being, that the magic of the circus comes from an agreement between actors and audience. The spell is cast by bringing you in on the joke, so to speak. It’s not their job to force you to believe what they want you to believe, it’s your job to let your imagination run with the evening. While Puck’s words above aren’t exactly talking about this (and come at the end rather than the beginning), they are a nudge and a wink to the audience in the same fashion.

Of course I knew all this, I’m a writer fer crying out loud. But this is more than just knowing, this is feeling. You can know that the earth is round, but never really feel it’s true until you are on top of Mount Fuji and swear you can see the horizon curve.

Unlike the fat man at the carnival, everyone here seemed genuinely happy to be there. Even our waiter was over the top cheerful. So much so that if I met him anywhere else I’d want to edge slowly away from him. But here it worked, it felt right.

After the introductions (and spell was cast) the first two acts came on. The small circular stage rises so everyone can get a good view. First there was a strong man/woman team who were as dexterous and flexible as they were strong. I wish I had pictures, but we’re talking about the sort of thing where the woman and man would be interlocked at the legs, parallel to the ground, and held up by the guy with one hand. No wires. Another point she stands on the guy’s head while he’s standing up. That kind of thing.

The next act is a woman doing acrobatics of a sort suspended a dozen feet off the ground, near the circus tent top, spinning around, wrapping herself in ropes, uncoiling, hopefully you get the idea. Equally impressive.

Finally a large (LARGE) South African singer came on and belted out a tune for us with her three large (not as large) backup singers.

Then came the next course, a pasta appetiser this time, two large hand made pieces of raviolli filled with cheese and potato (so more like a perogi) in a rich creamy herb sauce. Also delicious.

Pan and the woman returned for more banter, with a bit of playful innuendo (actually the whole evening has a touch of innuendo about it, both in the way the performers dress and how they act).

Two sexy women dressed in 1920s black and white cabaret-like outfits performed together at the top of the tent using a trapeze (one trapeze they both sat on) putting on an impressive display of agility, flexibility, and sensuality. The act ends with them kissing (WOO!)

This is followed up by a cross dressing clown. No traditional clown makeup, mind you! Just women’s makeup and a very clear five o’clock shadow and overdone plastic doll wig. It was his turn on the rope, and of course while everything he did went wrong and comical (sadly we all got a good view that he really did have a FULL body wax…) it requires a lot of strength and skill to screw up that precisely.

Then the singer and her backups returned, first belting out some classic tunes, followed by some South African ones. Oh, that’s right, I forgot to mention. This show started in South Africa several years ago and only recently has moved up to London.

They continued to sing while we had the main course, which we had a choice in. Gill and I chose something so bizarre we just had to know if it worked – beef filets in chocolate and chilli sauce.

Holy hell it was good. Now, I’m not one to normally go on and on about meals (Gillian on the other hand loves to talk with her parents about food), but all of the food we had that night was so spectacular I can’t help but mention it. The beef was tender and cooked to perfection, just a hint of pink. And as strange as it might seem, their chocolate and chilli sauce was perfect. It also had some sides with it, carrot/swede mash and something creamy and tasty but can’t describe further.

Next were the last formal acts. Pan returned to tell us to worship at the temple of the body tonight, and informed us the food we ate had been infused with ingredients known for their aphrodisiatic qualities. It was up to us whether we did any worshiping later that night.

The strong man was back carrying a large frame shaped spherically up (carried it like Atlas) to the centre to be raised up. This time it was three women performing, twisting, twirling, bending, combining aspects of the rope act, trapeze act and balance. No kissing this time (damn)

The last act was a Chinese contortionist, and her feats of flexibility were both astounding and graceful.

The last course was the dessert, which was served during more singing. Actually it was three small deserts, a cream and fruit dish, a small caramel pudding, and a tarrimisu. While the tarrimisu was tasty, I wish I had it first instead of last, because the other two were simply amazing.

Finally the singing came to its peek, the three singers got on the centre stage, and encouraged the audience to stand, clap and dance.

Anyone who knows me knows I do not dance. I did not dance at my wedding. I have never willingly danced in public in my life unless it was a joke.

I danced.

I danced and I didn’t care how stupid I looked. I was dressed in a suit, tie off, top button off, and damn I looked good. I danced with Gillian (who danced but mostly tried not to fall down) to songs like “That’s the way I like it” for the next ten minutes.

When the bills came around, the evening came to £8.50 each. Drinks were predictably expensive, £2 each, but who cares? This was an experience that they normally charge between £65 and £85 for. I paid £20 for the two of us and had them keep the change. We arrived around 7:00 and didn’t leave until 11:30. It was a full evening, that’s for sure.

There was something special about that night. No single act or song or moment made the evening special, however. It was the evening as a whole that came together and truly created an unforgettable experience. I allowed myself to be lost in the moment, and for that I would gladly have paid full price.

And, as I am an honest puck
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue
we will make amends ere long

Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night to you all
Give me your hands, if we be friends
And Robin shall restore amends.