Painter Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist, i.e. lacking formal art education. The program for this powerful piece declares him the “Italian Van Gogh.” Abandoned by his mother in Switzerland after an illegitimate birth (here, it haunts him), the boy seemed relatively stable until attacking foster mother, Elise Hanselmann. This resulted in the first of several lengthy psychiatric hospitalizations.
Ligabue lived a hand to mouth itinerant life after being deported back to Italy where he spoke not a word of the language. He started to paint in 1920. Eight years later, he was somewhat recognized, though his first exhibition wasn’t mounted until 1961. I knew none of this when I entered the theater.
Ligabue (Marco Michel) enters the room like a hunted man, cowering, panting, sweating. There’s no fourth wall. His eyes blaze and dart. “Give me a kiss…nothing can be done…may I, just one kiss…a moment of comfort, but no, nothing changes…it’s not your fault…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…am I bothering you…you’re afraid…if I give you a painting would you like me and would you maybe give me a kiss?”
Ligabue takes off his jacket and tie. Clothes are loose, wrinkled, khakis smeared with charcoal. Three tall panels on wheels revolve to brown drawing paper. He picks up chalk and starts to draw. “I’ve had no luck, no luck…”
For a taut 75 minutes, the tortured soul tells us about his life while drawing some of it. The artist rubs a cheek on the portrait of his adoptive mother, streaking his own with charcoal. He bends, or rather folds, to communicate with unresponsive art, intermittently ripping off and discarding a page in frustration. (Paper is layered.)
Hanselmann is portrayed as kind and loved. The premise of the title is her unwillingness to kiss the child for fear she might become too attached. His mother might return. He might be permanently incarcerated. “Mother, I’m 17 now. I have to go away again. This time it’s the looney bin…”
He’s wretched, kinetic, pleading. Other men make fun of Ligabue. At 30, he knows nothing of sex. Every muscle in the actor’s body seems controlled by emotion. Arms periodically flail. He hits his forehead. Again and again the character counts and asks for a kiss. Helplessness tears at him. Anger erupts. Ligabue attends the exhibition in Rome well dressed but barefoot, his mind still chaotic. “No one can heal me…”
Gut wrenching performance. Masterful Direction. Immersive writing.
A Kiss-Antonio Ligabue
Performed by Marco Michel
Playwright/Director- Mario Perotta
November 23, 2019
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