Review by Kate Gaul
The Italians - a new play by Danny Ball is given a “stylish” premiere by director Riley Spadaro at 25A while another Mediterranean-Australian story, Looking for Alibrandi, plays simultaneously at Belvoir in the Upstairs Theatre.
Part heist, part road/buddy story, part romantic comedy, part reality TV, The Italians is a family drama and a lovingly constructed look at modern Italian-Australian shenanigans. This is not an earnest play, but it is sincere. Everyone’s love story is different – and there’s a billion stories on earth. This is a gay love story but not only that – younger hetro mating rituals are interrogated as are the older parents’ courtship. It’s a story set post-marriage equality but is in dialogue with hetro normative models and at a deeper level the play relates to the key tenants of a conservative romantic comedy. A point of difference is that this story ends happily for the gay couple. Yay! Don’t forget the other elements – this is an action-packed plot. The complex plot drives the drama. The characters are colourful, if a little 2 dimensional (charmingly so – and this is where the writing leans more into farce but never quite gets there). The jokes are fast and furious and for millennials (who get the references) these are gold-plated thigh slappers. Does the play have anything to tell us about the contemporary Italian-Australian experience? I’m not sure. I’ll quote director Riley Spadaro here: “The Italians is a wild, fever dream celebration of Italian-Australians that asks the question: If Italians have assimilated into Anglo-Australian culture, who cares?!” I look forward to more work from Danny Ball – once he figures out what to do with the cliches and digs deeper.
The production design (Grace Deacon) is a vision in green – a colour not often used in the theatre with such confidence. The combination of tiles, and leaf stencilled walls accompanied by the red chairs and smattering of red and white in the costuming recall the Italian flag. It’s a great palette for the zany costuming and props (red tinselled scooters stand in for vespers). And a blue Madonna pops from the walls and is the site of more than one clever revelation. It is a beautiful design. The juke box soundtrack seduces with its familiarity (Luke Di Somma). Lighting design (Phoebe Pilcher) completes the over-the-top vision for the production – her design conjures both school spectacular and a nuanced naturalism. This ability to swing from high style to contemplative truth is confidently achieved across the production. It is a tribute to the Riley Spadaro (Director) that it holds all reasonably well considering the erratic energy exerting from every pore of the work.
An excellent cast is at the centre of the production. Tony Poli brings grace and gravitas as company elder to his roles of patriarch, Gaetano, a fine turn as Albo, and a light touch interpretation of the aging Nino. I am old enough to remember Tony Poli – onstage - in The Heartbreak Kid at Griffin (1987). It’s a pleasure - and in this case a privilege -to see cross-generational work onstage (more please!). Danny Ball (yes, the writer; stepped into the role quite recently, I believe) plays the charismatic rich-kid Sal. Brandon Scane is well cast as his lower-class foil and lover. Nic English – another last-minute replacement – brings an enigmatic and slightly scary energy to Luca, a cousin. Stand out amongst the younger gents is Philip D’Ambriosio. The Italians reveals him as a first-rate comic character actor who effortlessly shifts from beef-cake plumber Mikey to in-drag Giuseppina and Brodie. Empathy was high for all his creations. And that classical training (thanks, NIDA) gave him an edge on the Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and others of Shakespeare’s rom-com catalogue are the plumber’s love language.
Amongst the women Deb Galanos is ever reliable as the trashy mum, Giovanna and her delightful secondary characters Oksana and Ozzie are as chaotic as this production. Giovanna’s daughter is played by Amy Hack who entertains with her dancing comp turns and with a fabulous and fleeting Lady Ga Ga. Emma O’Sullivan as Patrizia is a standout. She is one of those fascinating comediennes who can shift an eyebrow and say SO MUCH. Emma O’Sullivan is worth the price of admission. Hilarious! She truly embodies the heart of the production style and gives so much more!
This is a funny funny evening. The story has a happy ending and the audience leave on a high. You will laugh. You will cry – yes, your heart strings will be pulled. A rough diamond for sure but one that shines brightly in the 25A firmament. In the words of another Italian – Madonna “who could ask for anything more?”
Image Credit: Katherine Griffiths