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The More Personas the Merrier

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

“Mona Lisa, Marilyn and Liza [Minnelli] are the only characters who haven’t changed since the beginning,” he says with a laugh. So far, Madonna has presented the greatest sustained challenge to the show’s ingenuity, Hennekam says, “because every time she does another album, we have to change the costume.” To date, there have been six Madonnas, including one incarnation in which the singer’s paper cone-shaped bra came outfitted with sparklers.

“I had to breathe all the smoke! It was a nightmare for me,” Marchetto recalls.

“The costume never caught fire,” Hennekam adds. “I don’t know why.”

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Growing up, Marchetto says, he was a dreamy, introverted child. His imagination fell under the spell of Venice, with its deceptive maze of streets and watery illusions, a city where nothing is as it seems.

He would sing along to Disney movies and the records his parents would buy him. His father played guitar and clarinet and shared his son’s love of cartoons. At school, Marchetto learned to paint and make paper wigs and, later, to sew. When left alone in his father’s shop, he would lip-sync.

At 16, he went to work in a mask shop, an apprenticeship that eventually helped him land a job as a Carnival costume designer. He began testing his exotic outfits on the streets of the Rialto, drawing stunned and delighted stares. “‘I was scared of what the people can think of my performance, but it was very important for me to try.”

Briefly pondering a career in design, Marchetto decided to study at the Scuola Dell’Arte in Italy. But after attending a workshop by the English mime Lindsey Kemp, he knew he’d found his true purpose. “For me it was like he opened my heart, my eyes, and I realized maybe I should do something like that.”

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Marchetto’s first show-biz break was winning first prize at Bologna’s La Zanzara D’Oro festival of new comics in 1988. He caught the attention of Italian TV and began working on a show about the life of Leopoldo Fregoli, a famous turn-of-the-century Italian trasformista, or quick-change performer. About that time, he met Hennekam, who had studied fashion and costume design at Studio Bercot in Paris and worked on Thierry Mugler’s menswear collections.

Invited to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1990, Marchetto and Hennekam whipped together 18 new characters and became an overnight cult hit. Boosted by word of mouth and endorsements from singers Boy George and Kate Bush, the show began touring at festivals in Canada, Australia and Japan, and launched the first of several successful London runs. By 1994, Marchetto had been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award, the British equivalent of the Tonys, and was the subject of a one-hour Granada TV documentary in which Steven Berkoff and others waxed euphoric over his singular talent.

Marchetto finally reached the United States last year, performing in San Francisco (where he was spotted by Geffen artistic director Randall Arney) and earning a Drama Desk Award nomination for “unique theatrical experience” in New York. You may have spotted him posing in paper bouffant wig and glasses in ads for l.a.Eyeworks.

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For their L.A. debut, Marchetto and Hennekam say they toyed briefly with creating f new site-specific characters--maybe Big Boy or Angelyne? “Is she still alive?” Marchetto asks innocently. They also considered substituting miniatures of Al Gore and George W. Bush for a pair of singing fox-fur heads that accompany “Doris Day” on “Que Sera, Sera.”

While some critics have discerned deep meanings from these sorts of details, the two men prefer to keep things less serious--or at least more ambiguous. “You can see the show at a lot of different levels, and you can read a lot into it,” Hennekam says.

Indeed, as long as the world keeps producing grandiose personalities, he and his partner should have material for years to come.

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“This gives me life to continue,” Marchetto says. “I need to have fresh characters all the time. I like to have a different crowd in front of me.”

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“ENNIO: STARRING ENNIO MARCHETTO,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Dates: Opens Thursday. Plays Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.; also Dec. 13, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 31. Prices: $20-$42. Phone: (310) 208-5454.


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