By Winston Soon
It’s opening night for Compagnia Pippo Delbono’s Questo Buio Feroce (The Wild Darkness) and the audience is abuzz.
The impossibly thin performer Nelson Lariccia couldn’t make the flight from Italy, he was too ill, so local movement performer Jeffrey Simlett has subbed in and has had merely hours to prepare. No matter. Simlett is as seamless as the production is beautiful.
The Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage festival delivers on bringing theatre unlike anything else you will see in Toronto.
This piece – and it is a piece – is an abstraction. It is Italian performance art. I can only say how it resonated for me as it is as subjective as a blurred canvas. Helping to navigate the piece with me is Francesco, a close friend and Italian national. I figure if anyone can give me the Italian perspective, he is the man for the job.
The show begins at 8:15, which I am told is an Italian 8:00. The white stage is glowing and sterile and the palette is set for Questo Buio Feroce. Pippo Delbono’s (this is a person, I learn) narrative begins and tells the audience that he discovered the essays of Harold Brodkey while traveling Burma, described as “A land that welcomes you with great gentleness.”
Brodkey was dying of complications from AIDS and the essays were written about his experience entering death. We swirl around in this interpretation of his thoughts as a deteriorating patient. Often excerpts of his writing are seen on a backdrop.
My guest Franceso feels that the subject matter is dated as AIDS is no longer considered the death sentence it once was. Likely the essays were written ten or so years ago, so this is fair. A nurse furiously yells the numbers of people who have died of the disease in a hospital waiting room while tall bird-like women sit and wait.
Having experienced the death of a friend recently, the subject matter of AIDS seems less relevant to me than the idea of slowing dying. I found the stage to be filled with all the bittersweet pain and sterile beauty of watching someone in a hospice leave their body. This is what it is to die, slowly. The quiet agony.
A man struggles midair with ropes tied to his hands and feet. Simlett’s character sits in his underwear on a drawing room chair and gives an earnest performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with a sweet vibrato. A middle aged man lets characters float around him while he says “look at me – I’m disappearing” and categorizes his death with the city of Venice: beautiful in its dispose.
There are more playful bits as well. An Italian woman tells a story of being Italian -American and melodramatically cries at the memory of “Jimmy.” I thought it was funny that she had an Uncle Buddy and an Aunt Peggie (although they spelled Buddy “Beddie” on the white backdrop, apparently this is how an Italian would spell it), as I too actually have an Aunt and Uncle by those names! There is a very playfully bawdy bit by a drag queen with an altered voice telling about outrageous sexual acts. Although fun, I didn’t necessarily find a fit in these bits to the rest of the piece other than comic relief and fun absurdity.
Francesco especially enjoyed the Commedia D’elle Arte bits. There was a lovely bit with two clowns; one old, the other one younger with Downs Syndrome. They prance around the stage and tease the audience quite playfully. I found it impossible not to fall in love with both characters.
Then another Cinderella bit where all the women take turns trying to fit into the shoe and Cinderella ends up with a hilariously gay prince. Francesco made note that the costumes of any Italian production just cannot be duplicated. Italians know their fabric.
I wouldn’t recommend this show for the fabric alone, however. I would recommend it for its control and its serene beauty. If you have watched a person deteriorate slowly from something debilitating it’s possible it may resonate more for you. The ending seemed to drag on but, then again, so does a death.
Something that angered Franceso and didn’t really sit great with me, was a strange and excessive bowing at the end. The company bowed about 10-15 times, no exaggeration. There was no standing ovation but the Canadian crowd politely kept clapping and the Italian company (Franceso thought pompously so) kept bowing.
When they left and people began to fish for their coats and the applause started to die, they came back again for more. We were gone and it was continuing and people were joking outside that we could leave the building for a cigarette and come back and it would still be going on. Not sure what that was about. Maybe us Canadians are just too damn polite.
Bowing aside, if you would like an amazing piece of performance art, I would recommend Questo Bui Feroce. It may confuse, but it is impossible not to be moved.
Questo Buio Feroce (The Wild Darkness)
Compagnia Pippo Delbono (Italy)
January 26-29, 2011 | $49 | Fleck Dance Theatre | 90 min
Photo: Questo Buio Feroce (The Wild Darkness) Gianluigi di Napoli