Jordan Winer is dead-serious about his fictional character, an Estonian soothsayer whose “presence” infected Winer about five years ago. Besides portraying the Great Zamboni in his new play, An Evening with Great Zamboni, Winer also serves as the character’s flunky in real life. The two of them share a Twitter handle, Facebook profile, and WordPress blog — evidently, they even have the same cell phone number. “You can leave messages here for the Great Zamboni,” Winer announces on his voicemail greeting. “And I’ll make sure he gets them.”
Zamboni falls in the same lineage of Eastern European caricatures as Borat: He’s a libertine with a crude sense of humor and one of those high, wheedling, thickly-accented voices that help bolster any stereotypes we might already have about Baltic civilizations. He’s the subject of scholarship — including a sprawling treatise by Professor Sheldon Spencer Sheldon (also played by Winer), who delivers the play’s prologue at Impact Theatre. And he’s remarkably affable, regaling us with tales of childhood and inviting the audience to ask him questions (e.g., “Why are people homophobic?”). If he can’t turn all of us into believers, he’ll at least keep us from fleeing during intermission.
That’s a feat by itself. The concept of Zamboni is thin, but it definitely has moments. Winer starts off strong with his character of Sheldon Spencer Sheldon, who rushes in with a bike helmet, reflective ankle bands, and a sheaf of crumpled papers that supposedly trace the whole exegesis of Zamboni’s career — or, rather, provide “irrefutable proof” that Zamboni is a spirit rather than a flesh-and-blood human. The evidence: Zamboni’s head appearing in an artist’s depiction of the Big Bang; a piece of moldy pita bread procured in Jericho, with sesame seeds arranged to form the image of Zamboni and Jesus at the Last Supper; the specter of Zamboni reflected in the eyes of Frank Zamboni, gazing from a vintage record jacket. The list goes on. And on.
In a recent phone interview, Winer said he modeled Sheldon Spencer Sheldon partly from his old professors at Harvard, partly from Yale lectures he watches online — which nearly always feature a klutzy, unkempt, madly gesticulating academic — and partly from the characters who populate Berkeley. He looks a bit like a frustrated Truther trying to convince an audience of skeptics that 9/11 was, indeed, an inside job. And he’s entertaining enough to warrant his own show, should Winer ever decide to go that route.
The character of Zamboni is more finely limned than the bumbling professor, though he’s also a little less accessible. Part of that might have to do with his foreign-ness, which requires a lot of explaining — this iteration of Zamboni was raised by poor Estonian cheese farmers, but previous versions had him emerging from a different part of Europe, with a vaguely French accent and a much more ornate moniker: Baron Felipe de Mouton Cadet Rothschild. When Winer premiered the show at San Francisco Theater Festival several years ago, he’d already changed the name but kept some dorky attributes. At that time, Zamboni wore a long white wig and practiced sorcery on audience members, many of who were actually plants.
Since then, Zamboni has gone through a number of evolutions, appearing at multiple theater festivals and on the Ashby Stage, telling fortunes on Fourth Street in Berkeley, refining his accent and his costume (it now consists of a fez and a Hawaiian shirt), littering his room with tchotchkes — including a framed picture of Farrah Fawcett and a few intimate shots of goats. (The joke about every Eastern European peasant’s ritual deflowering with a goat is an unfortunate addition to Great Zamboni, one of a small smattering of cheap shots.) Alex Friedman helped design the exquisitely detailed set, and it’s one of the play’s best aspects.
In many senses, this Great Zamboni is an experiment. It’s the first time that Winer actually consolidated the narrative threads into a full stage performance, abetted by director Katja Rivera. The scripted parts of the show — namely, the professor’s prologue and a weird dating game that happens in the middle — go over without a hitch, though Zamboni’s rather long, embellished retelling of past exploits could probably be curtailed a bit. The best part, unequivocally, is his answering of audience questions, which was the pulp of the original gag. Last Thursday, for instance, someone asked Zamboni whether friends or lovers matter more in the long run.
Zamboni chewed on the thought, then began soliloquizing. “Friends,” he said. “When expectations are less, sometimes the love is more.” A couple audience members murmured assent in the second row, and the wise Estonian smiled. “I know, very deep,” he said. “That’s why my name is ‘Great’ — not just ‘Zamboni.'”