Hello, Paper Dolly! - Ennio Marchetto at Club Fugazi

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 3, 2023
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Ennio Marchetto and some of his paper characters.
Ennio Marchetto and some of his paper characters.

Ennio Marchetto's father was an espresso machine repairman. And though he didn't take over the family business, Marchetto has built his own singular, highly caffeinated career on flat whites.

For more than 30 years he's transformed huge sheets of blank paper into the cleverly drawn, precisely folded costumes that allow him to metamorphosize into more than 60 celebrity and historical characters over the course of his frantic hour-long show "Ennio! The Living Paper Cartoon," which opens a month-long run at Club Fugazi in North Beach on January 10.

"I haven't finished choosing all of the characters for San Francisco," Marchetto told the Bay Area Reporter on a phone call last month from his home, near his native Venice, explaining that there were about 150 in his repertoire pre-pandemic. He'd recently been working on some new personae, including the body-positive pop star he refers to in charmingly accented English as "Leetzo."

"Most of the costumes transform into two characters, some three," said Marchetto, who feverishly lip-syncs in each character's persona. "There are usually jokes or connections to the transformations. Some are easy, like Leetzo [whose hit "About Damn Time" includes the refrain "I'm comin' out tonight] who turns into Diana Ross singing "I'm Coming Out," or when the Queen of England turns into Freddie Mercury from Queen.

Other shifts, he explained, are underpinned by a sophisticated European sensibility that may fly over some audience members' heads.

Ennio Marchetto  

"I do Lotte Lenya singing 'Surabaya Johnny' transform into Popeye." Both the Kurt Weill character and the spinach-eating cartoon are sailors by trade.

"It's a beautiful costume transformation," said Marchetto, "But it may be difficult for some of the audience to totally understand. But I like that different people get different jokes in the show. It can appeal to old people and to young people. Cultivated people and stupid people!"

In any case, the gags are delivered so fast and furious that there's no time to waste worrying over one's cluelessness.

Marchetto, now 63, had already established himself as a comic cabaret performer in Italy when he began collaborating with Dutch designer Sosthen Hennakam on the deceptively simple paper transformations that he debuted to overwhelming acclaim at the 1990 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Marchetto has since performed his ever-evolving act on five continents, earning an Olivier Award nomination for one of his West End engagements in London. Taking the stage alone in a black bodysuit that leaves only his head, arms and shoulders exposed, he whips through his one-ply wardrobe at an exhausting pace.

Ennio Marchetto and some of his paper characters.  

The performance requires perfectly timed choreography and split-second shifts in facial expression; Marchetto's stretchy, bubbling putty-like mug is among the show's greatest delights.

Marchetto, who is gay and has performed at events including Manchester Pride and an Elton John-hosted AIDS benefit, says that his one-of-a-kind act is impossible to pigeonhole.

"There's lip-syncing and it's a kind of drag, but hard to compare to anything else. I have male and female characters. And children enjoy the show as much as adults."

Then again, on a tour of Japan in the 1990s, Marchetto was asked to skip his Madonna costume because it was considered too risqué at the time.

Japanese culture also figures into one of the most common misperceptions of Marchetto's act, which has been erroneously referred to as Human Origami.

"It is not at all origami!" he clarified. "I do think that the Japanese culture appreciates paper crafts of all kinds. But this has nothing to do with origami."

Over the course of his one-of-a-kind career, Marchetto has played the Bay Area three times, most recently in 2011 at the Napa Valley Opera House. During that visit he had a chance to attend a performance of Club Fugazi's then-resident production, "Beach Blanket Babylon."

"With all the different characters and jokes about popular culture I think I am very much in its spirit. And San Francisco is a nice place to play for a month. Some of my friends from Italy will come for a visit and stay with me while I'm there."

'Ennio! The Living Paper Cartoon,' Jan. 10 — Feb. 5. $35-$69. Club Fugazi, 678 Green St. 415-273-0600. www.clubfugazisf.com

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