"It's like saddling a horse," says Kevin Kent, inhaling sharply and lifting his arms into the pose of the crucifixion. "When the saddle goes on, the horse expands its belly to get some wiggle room. So you tighten the straps in stages, cinching tighter as the horse relaxes. It works exactly the same way with me."

Kent's equestrian metaphor draws grunts of assent from Becky Kaufman, the costume designer now embroiled in stage two of Kevin's corset-tightening, a job that requires most of her strength and leaves welts along her fingers. "Are you okay?" she asks when a sudden tug makes Kevin yelp. "Fine," he replies, bracing himself for the final cinch with a resolute smile.

Over the past four years, Kent has spent an ungodly amount of time trussed up like this. For five or six nights each week, he's crammed his six-foot frame into six-inch heels to perform feats that would defy a common man in flats, and has had every hair ripped from his body on a bi-monthly basis. Armed with only his wits (no script, no scene mates), he's faced over 100,000 hungry strangers, and through his singular skill for crafting intricate, shockingly funny worlds out of thin air, he's emerged with over 100,000 new fans, all thrilled by what lucky Seattle fringe theater audiences have known for years: When it comes to improv--the demanding, infinitely risky art mastered by few and degraded by many--Kevin Kent is a genius.

"At first I was afraid this was going to be some 'singing waiter' thing," says Kevin of Teatro ZinZanni, the visionary high-art dinner theater that first cast him in its 1998 debut, Love, Chaos, & Dinner. "But what I found was the circus, which included a meal."

With Love, Chaos, & Dinner, Teatro ZinZanni (brainchild of One Reel mastermind Norman Langill) simultaneously invented and nearly perfected a genre. Combining a banquet gourmet meal created by Northwest chef and "restaurant celebrity" Tom Douglas with world-class entertainment (from European circus and cabaret performers to American opera divas and drag queens), Teatro ZinZanni swept audiences into a three-hour whirlwind of dazzling entertainment and perfectly fine food, presented in a venue that's a work of art in itself--a gorgeous, hand-crafted cabaret tent imported from Belgium, where it was built in 1910. So successful was Love, Chaos, & Dinner that, following its 14-month run in Seattle, the show moved to San Francisco, where it continues to pack in crowds two years after its premiere.

Definitely a key to the show's success was the casting of Kevin Kent as the shape-shifting chef, Cookie. Each night Kent blazed onstage to introduce the evening's five courses, with a series of show-stopping vignettes that saw him morph from an Evangelical preacherman to a dizzy, helium-voiced showgirl. From the beginning, ZinZanni has championed itself as a purveyor of theatrical "chaos!", and with the casting of Kent, the show got a much-needed dose of danger. After years of commanding the attention of rabble-rousing crowds at Re-bar, both with Greek Active theater and in his own "Sister Windy" shows, Kent brings to his performances an undeniable edge, which reveals itself primarily through his breathtaking ability to drop his preternaturally sweet demeanor and spew a stunning bit of lewdness, or deliver honey-tongued come-ons, or lick an audience member's bald spot until he squirms out of his seat and onto the floor. (I saw this happen.)

"It's like holding your little brother down and dangling spit over his face," says Kevin of the relish he takes in making ZinZanni's largely yuppie audiences squirm. "You do it because you can."

But if Teatro ZinZanni has made canny use of Kent's inherent edginess, he's repaid the favor by enjoying the exposure, opportunity, and good old cash money ZinZanni continues to toss his way. Despite a number of tempting offers (including a role with Cirque du Soleil), Kent has stayed with ZinZanni, following the first show to San Francisco for two years and returning to Seattle this month for the premiere of ZinZanni's new production, Dinner & Dreams.

Like the first show, Dinner & Dreams takes place in a luxurious Belgian spiegeltent, and once again, Kevin Kent plays an integral role: Mabel Dean, the 96-year-old matriarch in whose honor the party of Dinner & Dreams is thrown. Dreaming her way backwards through time, Mabel transforms into younger versions of herself, from a droopy-boobed septuagenarian to a sporty 1920s wing-walker, and treats her guests to a cornucopia of entertainments, which include Russian hand-balancer Elena Borodina, French trapeze contortionist Aurelia Cats, opera diva Nancy Emmerich, tap-dancing vaudevillian Wayne Doba, and the legendary El Vez, the self-described "love child of Charo and Elvis."

"Basically I just spit up ideas," says Kent about the evolution of his role in Dinner & Dreams. "'I want to appear as a valet and sing a song about dressing a man! I want my breasts to talk!'" These ideas are bounced off ZinZanni's directors and designers, who engage with Kent over days of "long and complicated fittings to enable really quick changes."

Kent has less to say about his private preparations. The art of improv requires of its practitioners an extraordinary level of attentiveness and availability--mental, physical, and emotional--and when I ask Kevin how he cultivates such a mindset, all he says is, "Basically I just take a lot of long baths." Citing as influences performers from Julia Child to Judy Holliday, Kent says he prepared for Dinner & Dreams by watching cartoons, reading a biography of Eleanor of Aquitane, and studying three different film versions of Gypsy.

"The best preparation I can do is to make myself as physically comfortable as possible," Kent says. It's a ridiculous statement, coming from a man in a corset so tight he has back cleavage, but apparently true: To ensure his (relative) comfort, Kent has done everything from Pilates to having ice packs rigged inside his fat suit. "It also helps to love the people you work with," Kevin adds, and having seen him interact both onstage and off with ZinZanni's family of international specialty performers, it appears that Kevin's found a band of freaks to call his own. "Plus I'm learning to balance a bottle on my nose," he says with delight.

Still, with ZinZanni, the cast is only half the show, and I press Kevin for audience-interaction war stories. "Well, of course folks who can't hold their liquor are a problem," Kent says. "But mostly the audiences are great. My favorites are folks who come in on a Friday night, beat and a little cranky after their workweek. Then they have a cocktail, the dinner's good, there's this show, and you see them blossom. By the end, they're exhilarated."

This is all well and good, but performing a show for an audience of eaters can't have been all fun. Has watching so many thousands of people feed themselves taught him any dark truths about humanity? "Yes," says Kevin with mock gravity. "The way you ate when you were four years old is the way you eat now, and the way you will eat for the rest of your life."

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