Geoff Hoyle explains how one of the new characters he plays at Teatro ZinZanni was developed - the ventriloquist had this enormous mustache, so you couldn't see his lips move.

And the dummy was an angry duck.

And the duck, speaking in a Scottish dialect, demanded the ventriloquist take the mustache off, just so the audience could see how terrible he was at ventriloquism.

But isn't this character a Scottish chef? A female Scottish chef? With no mustache and no dummy?

"Well, Norm liked the Scottish accent," says Hoyle. The rest was how he pitched a new character to Norman Langill, founder and artistic director of Teatro ZinZanni.

The other stuff just evolved as he was working with veteran ZinZanni headliner Frank Ferrante, whose signature character is Chef Cesar. Ferrante is helping Hoyle mold his characters into the ZinZanni format, which basically means building an act around the variety acts and the multicourse dinner that is served during the show.

Hoyle, whose ZinZanni gig opens Aug. 31, has already performed with the outfit at its Seattle theater. It's a nice fit. Performing with ZinZanni, which is always heavy on the interaction with the audience, is the sort of entertaining Hoyle and Ferrante love most. There are heavy elements of improvisation involved, along with a healthy unpredictability.

"Every night I think, 'Well, this may be the night when it happens ...' Somebody goes running out of the tent, somebody keels over, I dunno," says Ferrante. "You have to be prepared for anything happening. But that's why I love it so much."

Hoyle calls it, "Uncle Fred acting," or the sort of informal performance stuff families do after large holiday meals. Both men feel they have a second sense for finding audience "volunteers" who will do well when drafted into the show.

The trick, they said, is to find people willing to stand up and play, but folks who wants to try to outshine the professionals. It doesn't matter if they're good or not. The volunteers represent the average guys in the audience, so even if they fail at what they are supposed to be doing, they get a good response simply for trying.

"The last thing we want to do is make them miserable," says Hoyle. "Even if they get a little embarrassed, we want them to enjoy themselves."

For his run in the show, Hoyle plays three characters: A baby (a familiar character to many of his Bay Area fans); the Scottish cook; and a Russian chef whose supposed to be the star of the show, but who's so caught up in his other business dealings, he doesn't get to the theater on time.

Details: The show is performed Wednesdays through Sundays at Pier 29 on the Embarcadero at the end of Battery Street. Tickets, which include a five-course dinner, music and a variety of entertainment, cost $116 Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, $135 Fridays and $140 Saturdays. Reservations may be made at 415-438-9933 or http://www.love.zinzanni.org.

'HEARTBREAK HOUSE,' one of George Bernard Shaw's most pointed bittersweet comedies, pokes fun at politics, manners and morals in a production opening Sept. 5 at Berkeley Rep. The show is the most-often produced title in the theater company's 40-year history. The show runs through Oct. 5 in the theater at 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets at $33-$69, may be reserved at 510-647-2949 or http://www.berkeleyrep.org.

'SWEENEY TODD,' Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece murder musical gets a supercharged re-imagining by director John Doyle and makes its West Coast premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.

The show, which begins previews Aug. 30 and opens Sept. 4, won several Tony Awards for its smash Broadway run. The San Francisco run will feature several of the original cast members. In the leads, David Hess, principal "Sweeney Todd" standby in the Broadway run, will play the title role. Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney's partner in crime, will be played by Judy Kaye.

One of the major departures in this version of the show is that the actors in the piece will also play their own musical instruments as the tale of Sweeney's revenge unfolds. The revenge, in this case, is making people who happen into Sweeney's barbershop on Fleet Street into meat pies.

Details: The play, which opens ACT's 41st season, runs Tuesdays through Sundays through Sept. 30 in the theater at 415 Geary St. Tickets, $22-$62 for previews and $30-$82 for the regular run, may be reserved at 415-749-2228 or http://www.act-sf.org.

'PETER PAN,' the musical about the boy who never wanted to grow up opens Aug. 31 at the Lesher Center for the Arts. Diablo Light Opera Company is presenting this musical family favorite through Sept. 29 in the theater at Civic Drive at Locust Street in Walnut Creek. Tickets, at $17-$38, may be reserved at 925-943-SHOW or http://www.dlrca.org.

'HYSTERIA,' by Terry Johnson, takes a fanciful look at Sigmund Freud's last days in London. The speculative tale features visits from Salvador Dali and a young woman who can't keep her clothes on, among other characters. It opens Aug. 30 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, and runs Wednesdays-Sundays through Sept. 30. Tickets, at $40-$42, may be reserved at 510-843-4822 or http://www.auroratheatre.org.

'GREATER TUNA,' a tale told by two men who play dozens of characters, tells you everything you want to know about the tiny town of Tuna, Texas. Act Now! is producing the show Aug. 31 through Sept. 22 in the Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust Street, Walnut Creek. Tickets, at $28, may be reserved by contacting 925-943-SHOW or http://www.dlrca.org.

'KENTUCKY CYCLE,' the two-part, six-hour saga of a couple of Kentucky coal country families opens 8 p.m. Aug. 30 at Concord's Willows Theatre, in the Willows shopping center. The show plays Tuesdays-Sundays through Oct. 28. You can catch the review at ContraCostaTimes.com and in TimeOut on Saturday. The story follows the families through 200 years of American history. Tickets, at $30-$38, may be reserved at 925-798-1399 or http://www.willowstheatre.org.

Reach Pat Craig at 925-945-4736 or pcraig@bayareanewsgroup.com.