Glass Houses

You’d almost think it would be impossible to stage a bad production of a terrific play like The Glass Menagerie. Menagerie, which premiered in New York in 1944 and played for 561 performances, was Tennessee Williams’ first theatrical success. Nonetheless, the director of the recent Italian production of Lo Zoo di Vetro, Andrea Liberovici (or Andrea Liberovivi or Andrea Lerovici, depending upon which press clip you believe—apparently fact-checking, along with the last Chinese river dolphin, is now officially extinct), which we saw here in Bologna on Sunday, found a way to do it.

Perhaps it’s worth saying that Lerovici’s (I’m voting for that version of his name) failure was, at least, heroic: He not only got Glass Menagerie wrong, he got it absolutely, completely, perfectly wrong in every single particular. It was like those ESP tests where they hold up cards with symbols on them. Random chance gives you a one-in-four probability of guessing the card correctly; people whose score is significantly higher are considered “sensitive.” But so, strangely enough, are those who can’t manage to get even one right. Maybe Andrea Lerovici is like that.

Where to begin? First, Lerovici cut the play by about half, reducing it to a series of brief, frantic scenes in which rising dramatic action or character development—or the beauty of Williams’ language—is rendered beside-the-point (does every single director in the world now believe that we can no longer watch anything unless it resembles an episode of CSI?)

Then there’s the “black box” approach. Lerovici explains in the program that directors have “traditionally” misunderstood Williams’ plays and have erred by staging them realistically. It’s a mistake to do so, he opines, because the plays are actually “metaphysical.”

Whatever that means. But I don’t understand what it has to do with making actors traipse around in stark, inky spaces (which nonetheless manage, in the case of Lerovici’s design for Zoo, to seem not just claustrophobic but dangerous; I kept thinking someone was going to fall and break a hip). Since when do “metaphysics” dictate the choice to erect a scrim, behind which the actors remain only dimly visible for the entire play, or to project onto the scrim the text of the lines that the actors are saying at the moment, the stage directions, or strange, psychedelic images (lots of trains going into tunnels, lots of roses, in case you don’t get the symbolism that refers to Williams’ sister, Rose)?

It’s all very modern and cute, but I say it’s bunk and I say the hell with it.

Then there’s the fact that Lerovici has Claudia Cardinale to play with in the role of Amanda Wingfield. I was ready to adore her; I was ready to shout “Diva! Diva!” But it just wasn’t possible.

Cardinale howls at the top of her lungs from the moment you see her, and her Amanda is so obviously mad as a skeet that Lerovici gives away the store in the first fifteen minutes. What are you supposed to learn about Amanda or her relationship with her family? She’s a bleedin’ loony, that’s what. End of story. Is it time for intermission yet?

Either Lerovici simply couldn’t restrain her (which, I admit, is possible—at times she seemed to think she was in A Long Day’s Journey into Night and not a Tennessee Williams play) or he told her to act like that. In the first case, shame on her. In the second, shame on him.

On the other hand, the translation of the script seemed to me rather fine. It’s jarring to hear “gentlemen callers” become “pretendenti,” though I don’t know what else they could have been. It’s just that “gentlemen callers” is so genteel-euphemistic and “pretendenti” is so … exactly what it is. But turning “pleurosis/Blue Roses” into “rosalia/Rosa Mia” struck me as most satisfying.

Lo Zoo di Vetro played here in Bologna at Teatro Duse, named after, natch, Eleonora Duse (1858–1924), whom I knew was Italian but didn’t realize, until I entered the lobby, was bolognese. (In fact, she wasn’t, although that’s what the plaque inside the theater leads you to believe. She was actually born in Pavia, in Lombardia. She died in Pittsburgh. Now, didn’t someone once famously say that dying in Pittsburgh was redundant? Or perhaps it was suicide in Buffalo. Yeah, that’s it. A Chorus Line. There’s still racial memory in the old queer yet.)

Teatro Duse is almost grand. Housed in the Palazzo del Giglio on via Cartoleria, it’s one of Bologna’s oldest theatres and was in use for the recitals of a Jesuit boarding school as early at the middle of the 1700s. In the early 1800s, it was used primarily for puppet shows and the like, and after the Risorgimento it was rebuilt with new galleries and with—a novelty at the time—real gas lights. Sarah Bernhardt, or so they tell me, performed there.

In 1898, it changed owners and was officially christened Teatro Duse. It was rebuilt again in 1904, once again in the 1940s, and finally in 2003. In other words, it’s had way too many face lifts.

The shell of the interior suggests a grand old palace, but almost nothing of that remains in the “modernizations.” It’s white and plain, with one enormous and slightly moth-eaten chandelier. The seats—faux red velvet with the occasionally patch in need of a dose of Propecia—apparently date to the 1940s restoration. They are, in any event, at least in the first gallery, appallingly uncomfortable.

The Sunday matinee we attended was populated almost entirely by blue-haired ladies—well, they would have been blue-haired ladies, but that trend, mercifully, hasn’t come to Italy, so they were just white- and gray-haired ladies—draped in enough dead-animal fur to make a hundred PETA activists burst instantly into flames. I mean, honey. With the dresses and the fur coats and the SHOES in that theatre, we could have opened up a “vintage clothing” store and never had to work another day in our lives.


P.S. Is it just me, or does Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides owe something to The Glass Menagerie? There’s the similarity of the names, of course—Wingo and Wingfield—but then there’s also the idea of the lunatic mother, the defenseless sister, the brother who abandons the family for the sake of his own sanity, and a “menagerie,” of sorts, though a living one in Prince of Tides. Someone should look into that, someone should. Don’t forget to give me credit.


Posted on 17 December 2006, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road, Write ... che ti passa. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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