This literate, seemingly classical play has been incubating a long time. Author Brandon Cole first conceived of writing about the tempestuous affair of actress/manager Eleonora Della Rosa called Eleanora Duse (1858–1924) and poet/ playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) in 1984. One wonders whether the equally pithy manifestation of his unconditional love of theater occurred by plan or organically.
A splendid 1998 film Illuminata – directed by John Turturro; written by Brandon Cole and John Turturro (a must for theater aficionados) emerged from early drafts. Over the years, Cole immersed himself in copious research, including a study of Italian. His journey has produced a dramedy of depth, psychological insight, and style; a story of love and betrayal where life and theater merge.
David O’Hara, Aiden Redmind, Cristina Spina, Rodrigo Lopresti, Ed Malone
From the moment one enters the intimate, well appointed Connelly Theater, atmosphere envelops. Italian opera can be heard, a maquette of Gianni Quaranta’s imaginative and evocative Set (‘love the painted interior of curtained boxes) is on display, enlarged photos represent the era. Inside, the gilded proscenium is pleasure to behold.
“You blame me,” Rosa (Cristina Spina) says sharply. “Yes,” answers Gabriele “Because I know how to love you,” she continues, “I abandon myself.” As the couple draws us in, we don’t know whether we’re watching the actress and playwright or two characters rehearsing his drama. Shades of things to come.
Cristina Spina and Rodrigo Lopresti
There are so many seamless crossovers of life and script as the 1899 cast tries to repair a poorly reviewed play while salving the relationship of its principals, worlds meld. Rather than being confusing or irritating, the approach adds intriguing layers to most every speech. Like other aspects of Cole’s work, it lands like Shakespeare.
Gabriel’s drama opened in Rome last night to scathing reviews. Unless he can repair it in a day, it will be shuttered in favor of “A Doll’s House,” the work of young Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen that “will appeal to the thinking class.” In fact, Rosa secretly agrees to appear in the new piece only if her lover’s effort is given a second chance. They have a day a day to rewrite.
Ed Malone, Aiden Redmond, David O’Hara
A small group of players who regularly work with the pair are as personally devoted to them-especially to Rosa- as they are dependent. Marco (Ed Malone) and Beppo (David O’Hara), two clowns in the broad Shakespearean sense, get involved up to their eyebrows. Marco contributes ideas and notes often based on purloined correspondence and overheard conversations. His ear for and way with words is astute. With the best of intentions, Beppo sets off an emotional Rube Goldberg mechanism of false assumptions and potentially disastrous outcomes centering on Rosa’s arch rival.
Romantic leading man, Domenica (Aiden Redmond), seems to temper group reactions until a scene where bile surfaces and double entendres rise and parry like a cartoon rapier. The actor serves as an everyman player, preoccupied with his own presentation (watch for the sword selection) and career, yet there when the company needs him. Domenica is aptly the only one on stage wearing bright color in the form of a red vest.
Eleonora Duse by Aimé Dupont, 1896; Gabriele D’Annunzio- Courtesy of Wikipedia
Brandon Cole’s eloquent, often poetic script eventually ties unruly loose ends in a satin bow. The process requires attention. Go see something you can sink your teeth into. And it’s fun.
Cristina Spina is marvelous. From her true Italian accent to proud, theatrical bearing she inhabits the role completely. We watch Rosa think, seethe, yearn and erupt. Even keeping her own counsel reflects in adjusted charisma. If this were a film, I’ve no doubt her eyes would be windows to a committed soul. She hums with presence.
Ed Malone and David O’Hara should be cast as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two work beautifully together. Malone favors an elongated Dick Van Dyke or Bill Irwin. He moves with the clarity and intention of a mime while delivering lines with utter finesse. Marco is sweet, sympathetic, and brighter than his station. David O’Hara shifts with staccato grace emitting snappy, opinionated dialogue in contrast to his colleague. His Beppo is good-natured, easy going, amoral and in for the long haul. Both characters seem real.
Aiden Redmond is well cast as the rather regal Domenico. It’s effortless to imagine his character in any number of traditional heroic roles. The actor’s performance is deceptively low key; filled with small gestural and expressive pleasures.
The weak link, I’m afraid, is Rodrigo Lopresti’s Gabriel. On a stage with a credibly international company, the actor presents as extremely American in a deeply Italian role. Pronunciation is flat or furry. Instead of seeming egotistical, commanding, and passionate, Lopresti appears one-note angry, his interpretation depending on volume. Chemistry between him and the fiery Rosa is improbable. The underplayed performance belongs elsewhere.
Except for letting Rodrigo Lopresti get away with poor semblance, Director Michael Di Jiacomo does a wonderful job. Other players are distinctive and adept with captivating stage business. (There’s a smart moment when scrunched between the two white-clothed clowns, Domenico absentmindedly puts a hand on each man’s knee in brotherhood of misery.) I don’t really comprehend two underused gramophones, but applaud a spinning parasol (another metaphor.) Everyone listens. Pacing is deft.
Costumes, also by Gianni Quaranta couldn’t be better if executed on Broadway scale, representing period and character with taste, authenticity, and originality. In Act II, his excellent Set includes a carved sculpture that looks very much like a larger version of Rome’s iconic Mouth of Truth said to close on inserted arms of the dishonest. Expanding on the metaphor, there’s even a mini theater inside.
Lighting (Jon DeGaetano) leaves much to be desired.
Production Photography by Richard Termine
Opening: Rodrigo Lopresti and Cristina Spina
The Left Wing in Association with John Turturro presents
The World Premiere of
Imperfect Love – A Serious Comedy in Two Acts by Brandon Cole
Directed by Michael Di Jiacomo
The Connelly Theater
220 East 4th Street