DINNER & DREAMS Look ma, one hand! Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Dinner & Dreams
Teatro ZinZanni
Open-ended run.

Late Nite Catechism
Open-ended run.

THE SECRET OF Seattle's longest-running shows is that they're not about the performances or the writing or even the spectacle. They're all about you.

Late Nite Catechism, sputtering through its eighth year on a steady diet of tourists and local Catholics so lapsed they'd never noticed the ads until now, is less a play than an opportunity to interact with a living, breathing improviser. You play a student in an adult catechism class, and since everyone remembers elementary school, your role isn't taxing. The baseball-loving Sister (Aubrey Manning, who, according to the pun-happy program, has been "inhabiting" the role since the spring of 1998) guides the students through a meandering, amusing lecture on Catholic doctrine, Vatican II, and how much fun it is to smack kids with rulers. But the real point is not the monologue—which by this point in the run sounds understandably stale (there is no discussion of child molestation, or Cardinal Schoenberg's backsliding on evolution)—but the script's gaps, in which Sister dispenses tissues to cover salacious displays of flesh and kitschy prizes to reward the dumbstruck targets of her improvisations. What distinguishes Late Nite from the walking cartoons at Disneyland is that your name, your background, and your behavior become the crux of the performance. It's the kind of exercise that my Catholic high-school theology classes used to call "affirmations": Late Nite takes your identity and reflects it back to you.

I'm sure Teatro ZinZanni would like to be known as the thrilling opposite of Late Nite's straight-backed comedy, its vaudeville/sideshow lineage playing the profane to Sister's sacred source material. But at its root, the extravagant Dinner & Dreams (as the present ZinZanni show is called) makes use of exactly the same desires as the humbler Late Nite Catechism. Like Late Nite, Teatro ZinZanni explicitly targets cultural divides—urban versus tourist, matron versus ingénue, queer versus square. The terrified sports who are plucked from the audience are quizzed on their names and origins (down to their very neighborhood, if they're from Seattle), and they're immediately pigeonholed and mocked—gently, of course.

Especially in its earlier incarnations, when Kevin Kent was flouncing around the Spiegeltent in ample Mabel Dean drag, what made Teatro ZinZanni thrilling was the titillation, for seasoned Seattleites, of watching profanity being dangled in front of the noses of tourists and exurbanites. The shock registered on the faces of less cosmopolitan audience members affirmed Seattle snobbery. Meanwhile, the audience members who came to be shocked got what they asked for—a world apart, where a strange man could ask a college student whether she was a virgin in front of her parents, pansexual characters could hit on boys and girls and senior citizens, and ogling freaks of culture (hand-balancers and trapeze artists are monsters by choice, not genetics) was part of your role as spectator at our local approximation of the Brazilian Carnival.

The summer edition of Teatro ZinZanni is tamer, and so its faults are more apparent. Frank Ferrante is the cra-a-a-a-azy Chef Caesar, and his TV-style shenanigans are far less interesting (because they're not divisive) than a drag queen's arch oeuvre. The result is a show that doesn't really do anything with the identity issues it stirs up. As for the revamped plot—which revolves around the sarcophagus of Cleopatra (played by Debbie de Coudreaux, who sings nicely, but looks cowed and humiliated when she's forced to act) and gigantic spoonfuls of something called "love spice"—it's flimsier than the skin on an onion. The shock has lost its edge, and we're left with only awe. For the record, the circus acts are indeed awesome. The hands-down stars are the Steben Sisters, whose mirror-image trapeze act contains its own miniature dramas. But pure talent has a harder time of it: Roxanne Butterfly's truly impressive tap dance seems somewhat sad in this palace of obstructed views.

Despite the outright pandering of Late Nite Catechism and Teatro ZinZanni, straight theater (and fringe theater especially) can probably learn something from their stunning successes. When theater isn't about its audience, it becomes about itself. And that's something no one wants to see.