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The More Personas the Merrier

In his wacky one-man show, Ennio Marchetto could be Celine, Marilyn or the pope.

November 26, 2000|REED JOHNSON | Reed Johnson is a Times staff writer

If Ennio Marchetto ever stops making theater, he might consider a new career advising Beverly Hills plastic surgeons. After all, Hollywood celebs spend millions every year getting sculpted to look like new people. Marchetto achieves those make-overs in the blink of an eye, with cut-and-paste techniques you won't find in any medical textbook.

Paper, scissors and over-the-top imagination are Marchetto's artistic tools, which he uses to transform himself into instant cartoon celebrities. A few snips and tucks and-presto!--Marchetto becomes Barbra Streisand, complete with iconic cardboard proboscis. Stevie Wonder's corn rows, Fidel Castro's combat fatigues and Madonna's notorious cone-shaped bra are among the outrageously inventive paper get-ups that Marchetto concocts in "Ennio: Starring Ennio Marchetto," his one-man showcase of quick-change artistry that opens Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse.

During the 75-minute musical tour de force, the Spice Girls bloat into the Three Tenors, Celine Dion morphs into the Titanic, and Queen Elizabeth II turns into Freddie Mercury of Queen (get it?), belting out "I Want to Break Free." Although Marchetto's character lineup changes from show to show, the eye-popping speed of his switch-overs is unvarying.

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On stage, the sturdily built Marchetto, 38, suggests a human pop-up book, or perhaps a piece of origami co-designed by Walt Disney and Salvador Dali. He also employs dance, mime, sight gags, and some expressive mugging and lip-syncing to animate his living gallery of celebrities and celebrated personages such as the pope and Mona Lisa.

"Actually, I really like to sing, but I'm very shy about singing. I prefer just to be a very good mime," Marchetto says, sipping juice at a Sicilian restaurant near the Geffen before rehearsal recently. He was accompanied by Sosthen Hennekam, 34, the Netherlands-born former fashion designer who has been Marchetto's co-director and designer since 1989. The two men live near each other in Venice, Italy, and often finish each other's sentences.

"Sometimes we sound like an old couple, but we're not," Hennekam jokes.

"We are different in every way," Marchetto agrees.

"I'm very Dutch and precise, and I want things organized," Hennekam says.

"I'm not organized!" Marchetto responds.

"But I think that's one of the things that's good for the show," Hennekam continues. "We see things in a different way, so there's always a mix of interpretations and ideas. And we do fight a lot."

"Less!" says Marchetto, getting in the final word.

"Shy" is hardly the term that leaps to mind watching Marchetto gyrate, swoon and eyeball-roll his way through a performance. Critics and peers from London to Tokyo have compared him to the great silent-film comedians and detected influences ranging from Matisse's paper cutouts to the French master mime Jacques Le Coq.

But Marchetto cites his most significant influences as television, movies and '60s pop music, which transfixed him as a child. His performance style also is indebted to commedia dell'arte, the 16th and 17th century Italian brand of improvisational comedy with archetypal characters in stock scenarios.

"In the commedia dell'arte, the characters move a lot. You don't need to understand [them], you can just understand the way they move," Hennekam says.

Marchetto's surreal costumes and operatically oversized gestures underscore his show's view of stars as magical, dreamlike creatures, both funny and grotesque, endearing yet vaguely monstrous.

"I don't really like all the characters we do," Marchetto says with a smile.

"But we couldn't do the show without them!" Hennekam breaks in.

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Rather than merely lampooning stars, Marchetto sends up the entire idea of celebrity, using humor to gently prick the bubble of glamour and fame. He describes his characters not as impersonations or parodies, but as his own quirky, highly personal takes on larger-than-life personas, from Maria Callas to Marge Simpson.

"I prefer to say that I take one character and make them like a cartoon," Marchetto explains. "I don't want to be like them."

"It's a very free impersonation," Hennekam adds.

The third member of this essentially two-man team is a brown leather duffel case, about the size of a golf club bag, used to store Marchetto's costumes. Weighing in at 60 pounds, it once disappeared in Morocco and another time somehow got routed to Moscow while Marchetto and Hennekam ended up in Madrid.

Marchetto says the show's earliest outline first occurred to him in a daydream many years ago while working at his father's coffee-machine repair shop in Venice.

"I was 21 years old, and I saw Marilyn Monroe in a dream, and I woke up and I take a piece of cardboard and I made a Marilyn (costume)," he elaborates in his somewhat tentative English. He later wore the costume during Venice's legendary Carnival, and subsequently turned Monroe into one of the show's first and most durable characters.

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