Lipsynka meets ’70s mime troupe Mummenschanz meets Chuck Jones meets Elvis. It’s fun to think of all the ways to describe Ennio Marchetto, a unique comic performer who parades a series of life-size, two-dimensional celebrity caricatures, providing a veritable tour of popular culture in a whirlwind entertainment.
The costumes — or body-size masks, or flat puppets, or whatever you want to call them — are crafted from paper by the Italian Marchetto and Dutch co-director-designer Sosthen Hennekam and animated by Marchetto, who lip-synchs and dances to one famous song after another. In his hourlong show at the Geffen, “Ennio,” he inhabits about 50 personages, from the Three Tenors to Cher, from Marilyn Monroe to Marilyn Manson. It’s unusual, clever and inspired silliness.
By the time he’s five minutes in, Ennio has already displayed Monroe, a singing and dancing Mona Lisa, Lou Reed, Lauryn Hill and Marge Simpson. In a taste of what’s to come, these last three are presented in combination; many of the designs are like those transformer toys, morphing from one entity into another with only a fold or a well-chosen accessory that appears from some hidden place in the costume. Part of the pleasure is trying to anticipate what’s going to come next — who will the Pope morph into? (Answer: Fidel Castro, singing “Guantanamera”). How about the Michelin Man? (Answer: Go see the show for this particularly funny threesome.)
It’s clear that Ennio’s favorites are his female divas, ranging from Whitney to Britney, from Janis to Alanis (both on bad hair days). But Ennio presents men too: His Ricky Martin has the audience rolling in the aisles, with good reason.
If Marchetto’s not folding his way from one figure to another, he’s disappearing only momentarily to do the quickest of quick-changes.
By the end, the stage is strewn with pieces of the paper costumes that have been removed and tossed aside. During the curtain call, Ennio points to them, applauding what remains of his subjects. For the most part, he obviously loves the figures he has caricatured, although he mixes in a healthy dose of satire to serve with his affection.
There’s not really a defined point being made here — Ennio’s having fun, pure and simple — but still a deeper expression begins to emerge: Our pop culture is so easily presented in two dimensions, in literal cardboard cut-outs, that we’re really reveling in its very lack of depth. Somehow, in flattening people, Ennio finds truth.
In its brief life, the Geffen has been home to several showbiz-themed projects, from its premiere production, “Four Dogs and a Bone,” to, most recently, the Jon Robin Baitz play “Mizlansky/Zilinsky.” “Ennio” falls in line with the theater’s apparent interest in examining the culture that emanates often from our own locality.
But this show is like a living art gallery with no dramatic shape; the costumes get a bit more elaborate and silly, but they don’t build on each other in any genuine way and can be presented in any order. “Ennio” is really a cabaret act — a martini or two would make the laughter even more infectious — and the Geffen isn’t quite the right venue for it. It will be very interesting to see if Marchetto can find his L.A. audience in the regional theater. He deserves to find it somewhere.