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Theater That Will Give You A Weekend In The Country

There are no doubt thousands of New Yorkers frustrated at being stuck in the city this summer; or weary after making it out of the city only to endure packed LIRR trains, beastly traffic, bad weather—or simply bad company.  If only they had gone to the theater this past weekend instead of the beach or the Berkshires.

Within ten blocks of a stretch of Broadway, Manhattan played host to two trilogies about bucolic getaways which proved that regardless of how stressful the summer 2009 has been for Americans, it was no different in 1970’s England or Italy of the 1670’s.

On Friday night I attended the first of these trologies, Lincoln Center Festival’s presentation of Trilogia della Villeggiatura, written by Carlo Goldoni and directed by Toni Servillo.  The staging (co-produced by theaters in Milan and Naples) called to mind the simple, elegant paintings of Giorgio Morandi at the Met last year.  The colors: muted, the design: unfussy, the impact: powerful.  A simple drop with two openings represented the city Goldoni’s wealthy, Italian families wish to escape, and a wide, empty stage stood in for the hot, open countryside that offers them little relief.

Trilogia della VilleggiaturaThe Italian actors all gave big, comic performances.  One did not need to speak Italian to understand these characters’ foibles at a gut level (the English subtitles did help a great deal with the details).  The evening’s many laughs were all were in line with Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte spirit as well as the style of Piccolo Teatro’s last Lincoln Center offering, 2005’s Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters.  Servillo himself was the exemplar of this style, playing a lazy moocher, Ferdinando.  (Servillo was also present at Lincoln Center this week, courtesy of the Film Society which presented a retrospective of his recent film work, including his justly acclaimed performance in this year’s Il Divo)

What was most surprising about Servillo’s staging was the autumnal tone that made the play feel more modern and less farcical.  I’ve been assured by witnesses of earlier Piccolo Teatro productions of Trilogia (directed by the company’s founder, Giorgio Strehler) didn’t ignore this tragic side of the plays, but that it was indeed more pronounced in this revival.  For me, this was embodied by the character of Giacinta (played with a compelling beauty and sadness by Anna Della Rosa).  She is a character torn between what she feels is love and what she believes to be duty.  Ultimately, Servillo’s production suggests she understands neither; but Giacinta’s final gesture—a yearning embrace—makes us believe that perhaps one day she will learn.

Over the next two days I took in another trilogy about the inability of the country to cure urban tills, Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquest.  This trilogy was not condensed to accommodate a single night at the theater—the three, 2-hour+ plays (first staged in 1973) were revived by the Old Vic in London and brought to the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway (catch clips from the production here).  All six of Ayckbourn’s Brits suffer from Giacinta’s dilemma—am I in love or merely attached? (And this counts as much for the characters who aren’t married as well as those who are.)

Much has been written about these plays already, but seeing the final performance Sunday night felt like the end of something bigger.  It was only seven hours I spent with the characters, but I felt like I shared an entire summer rental with them.  The six actors had been playing the roles for almost a year but they were still fresh on the last weekend, as if the tragic-comic scenario had been hatched just before curtain.  (Four of the actors were nominated for Tony Awards but the other two were just as strong.)

Most importantly, The Norman Conquests did not feel dated at all.  If you ignored the lack of cell-phones or e-mail in the plot, it could easily pass as a new work.  Like Goldoni’s timeless Trilogia, the Norman trilogy shows that the desires that draw people out to the country (and then drive them right back to the city, no more relaxed—and often more stressed—than before) haven’t changed in centuries.  It’s too bad both trilogies aren’t running all summer.

Photo:  (from left to right) Toni Servillo and Betti Pedrazz. Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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