Let?s Make It Legal Pad: Ennio inks an icon.
Let?s Make It Legal Pad: Ennio inks an icon.

As Hollywood proves each summer, cartoons invading the multiplex is no great feat—two dimensions to two dimensions, how hard is that? But rare is the theater artist who opts to create a cartoonish effect on stage. Depth is more or less unavoidable in the 3-D world of theater—one of several reasons the hour-long Ennio at Arena Stage proves as visually intriguing as it is funny.

If you wanted to assign a genre to the extended sight gag Ennio Marchetto has built around himself, it might be “origami-inspired quick-change stand-up karaoke.” The basic impulse is the lampooning of pop culture figures—about 60 in as many minutes—by lip-synching to a frenetic drag-style mix tape while donning and discarding flat paper costumes. Flat, but malleable, that is. They fold up, flap out, flip over, and occasionally billow in the breeze, allowing Marchetto to render the pop icons cartoonish, stylized, and two-dimensional—but entirely present.

Paper collars morph into wigs, a roll of crepe paper subs for a feather boa, paper puppets sing along with Doris Day. But that by itself would only be mildly diverting. What makes the exercise engaging isn’t that this leotarded performer can, with a paper T-shirt, paper hat, and enormous hand-shaped paper mitts, turn himself into a plausible Slim Shady. It’s that by twisting two flaps on the hat, and flopping the shirt over on itself, his Slim Shady can transform himself into a persuasively sequined Gloria Gaynor. The effect is that Marchetto has somehow reached into Eminem and released his inner gay icon.

There’s quite a lot of that sort of pointed transformation. A well-preserved Egyptian mummy unraveling to reveal a well-preserved Cher; Frank Sinatra trading his tux for daughter Nancy’s go-go boots. You start to look for the flaps and tabs, trying to figure out who’ll pop up next, a task rendered mostly impossible by the fact that with just a few folds, he can switch from being all three tenors to a gospel choir or maybe a set of Russian nesting dolls or Céline Dion (turned even more robotic than usual by a CD that skips and skitters, making her flamboyant arm-waving resemble the sort of semaphore seen on aircraft carriers).

If the evening were 10 minutes longer, it might well overstay its welcome, but Marchetto knows to leave the crowd wanting more, which is what my audience clearly wanted during his post-ovation encore switcheroo: a sumo wrestler who turns into a—ah, but why spoil the surprise?