Ennio Marchetto doesn’t talk in his riotously amusing and unusual act, but he’s happy to share details about his longtime career success.
“It’s a mix of mime, dancing and vaudeville and theater; it’s something that I create, with the funny idea that the costumes are all in paper,” he says on the phone from San Francisco, where “Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon” runs this week through Feb. 5 at Club Fugazi, the former home of the beloved revue “Beach Blanket Babylon.”
The last time the Italian performer was in town, about 11 years ago, he got to see “BBB” and enjoyed its comedy, music, caricatures and clever take on pop culture.
Yet he points to contrasts between that show and his.
“I’m alone on stage, and they had a lot of people doing different characters. Yes, it was very fantastic, with big costumes to wear. My costumes are very simple, just in front of my body, and I put everything in one bag,” he says.
He has about 400 characters in his repertoire, and 60, accompanied by a soundtrack to which he lip synchs, are featured in each show.
“It means that each one doesn’t last more than one minute,” mentioning that some morph into others. He’s tickled by some folks that are in the San Francisco run: Tony Bennett will transform into Judy Garland.
“Of course, Judy Garland is one of my favorite characters; I must say I’m not 20 anymore,” he adds, mentioning that a career highlight was encountering her daughter while doing the “Royal Variety Show” in London: “It was one of the greatest moments my life to meet Liza,” he says.
While the show has parodied old-timers like Bennett and Dean Martin (wearing a blue smoking jacket, singing “Volare,” which means “to fly” in Italian) as well as references famous paintings such as the “Mona Lisa,” Ennio happily announces that the current version boasts pop icons Harry Styles and Lizzo.
The divas — Adele, Barbra, Celine, Lady Gaga, Tina and Whitney — all remain popular.
Ennio, who had attended art school and worked in a mask shop in Venice, found his first subject in Marilyn Monroe wearing the iconic white dress, who came to him in a dream, “dancing in the clouds.” He says, “I woke up, and I took a scissors and I cut out the first costume ever. So thanks to Marilyn, I created this show.”
Happy to have found an alternative to fixing coffee machines, his father’s vocation in which he was expected to follow, Ennio was in his 20s in the late 1980s when he did his first performances in Bologna, where he won a prize and found an agent. That led to a high-profile run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1990. He appeared Off-Broadway in 1999 and in Northern California in 2000, 2003 and 2008. He’s performed in more than 70 countries through the decades.
For years, he’s worked with collaborator Sosthen Hennekam, a fashion designer from Holland. Their one-of-a-kind paper costumes are covered with plastic, repelling sweat and enabling Ennio to wear them 100 times (with frequent repairs). Many are finely engineered pieces (they’re rolled up and placed in a special bag for travel), but some are quick studies. Once, to accommodate a character with local flavor for a gig in Norway, Ennio whipped one up in two hours.
While American and British audiences may find his act more appealing than non-English speakers, Ennio emphasizes that it’s truly for people of all nationalities and ages. He’s not upset if patrons don’t immediately get the jokes because the show is fun to watch: “In the end, they like the paper,” he says.
Although many of his 1980s characters like Grace Jones and Kate Bush have been retired, and the show continues to include operatic and fine art references, Ennio is particularly enjoying its plentiful pop and rock elements these days.
He says, “It’s fun and there’s dance music that’s very alive. I don’t want sad songs in the show. We don’t need sadness we’ve already got in our lives.”
“Ennio! The Living Paper Cartoon” runs Jan. 10-Feb. 5 at Club Fugazi, 678 Green St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$65; 415-273-0600; www.clubfugazisf.com.