STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Be Italian

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Be Italian Though my parents fluently spoke Italian, I know only about seven words of the language. They wouldn't teach me, but preferred to use the tongue as their own special code. That way, whenever they wanted to keep something from me, they could unleash a torrent of words that ended with vowels, and I'd be none the wiser.

Though my parents fluently spoke Italian, I know only about seven words of the language. They wouldn't teach me, but preferred to use the tongue as their own special code. That way, whenever they wanted to keep something from me, they could unleash a torrent of words that ended with vowels, and I'd be none the wiser.

So when I requested an interview with noted Italian director Mario Mattia Giorgetti, I cringed when I was asked, "Ah, Mr. Filichia, with a name like yours, you must know Italian, no?"

No.

Though Giorgetti didn't speak English, I didn't have to worry, because the company's choreographer, Gillian Whittingham, knows both languages, and offered to interpret. Thus was I able to communicate with this handsome, virile man of 60 with a shocking shock of white hair and a grizzled salt-and-pepper beard.

I learned that he arrived in the U.S. on Oct. 3, and, after 35 days of rehearsals, he opened Uberto Paolo Quintavale's Oedipus, the Man, a new version of Sophocles' classic. With American actors, by the way. Dominic Chianese, so good in A Perfect Ganesh a few seasons back, played Tiresias. Robert Cabrera was Oedipus, and Janet Sarno was Jocasta. It took Whittingham and two other translators to help him, but they accomplished it, along with a chorus of imported Italians, in what's called The American Company of Italian Theatre.

Giorgetti actually prefers to work with American actors. Interpreted Whittingham, "He says they give themselves entirely to him. They also make clear what their status is."

"Como?" I asked, using one of the seven Italian words I do know.

Giorgetti smiled, and, after his long discourse, I learned that "Italian actors are worried about defending their own image. They don't like to play parts that go against what they believe themselves to be. That's not a problem here. American actors have a desire to grasp new material mixed with classical theater."

Whittingham put on her choreographer's hat to interject that "American actors had an equal respect for the dancers in the piece, which doesn't happen in Italy. Here we had a great relationship between the two groups."

For that matter, Giorgetti prefers American audiences, too. "They abandon themselves more. Italian audiences are used to classic theater and put themselves into a judgmental position. Americans are more free in feeling, let themselves go, and even experience Greek catharsis."

Giorgetti proudly let me know that contemporary rewrite of Oedipus Rex had costumes by Danilo Donati, who won twin Oscars for Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet and Fellini's Casanova. Then he detailed the difference between the new and the old scripts.

"Sophocles started when Oedipus was king, but this one starts with him as a man. His parents are shepherds, and he's a shepherd, too. Then he's a king, then a man again. Antigone and Ismene aren't there at the end of this one. Tiresias and Creon are more involved in political intrigue, lightly touched upon in Sophocles. Jocasta doesn't hang herself, but kills herself with the knife that Oedipus used (instead of her brooch pins) to blind himself. Then he starts a new journey into the light."

So what's the point? "There's nothing new to be said," Giorgetti admitted, "but the play invites us to look at each of us, the way we're asked to do in Beckett's plays. It's a battle for power and political intrigue, and a journey into our own existence."

Lest all this sound too heavy, Giorgetti also imported Goldoni's The Mistress of the Inn with Italian actors -- albeit set to music by Madonna, James Brown, Cindy Lauper, Van Halen, and Eurythmics. "This will help," Whittingham helped, "to bring young people into contact with Goldoni. It's part of our young people's program that takes works into Italian schools. We're showing it here because we want to book it into high schools where they study Italian." In other words, an Italian version of Theatreworks USA.

Tuscany native Giorgetti fell in love with theater when he was eight, went to the circus, and loved the clowns. Soon he was aping them in the backyard with his friends, then writing, acting and directing in skits. ("It was better than football.")

Of course, Italian parents are just as ready to throw their heads in the ovens when their kiddies opt for a show biz career, so Giorgetti eventually studied electronics in college, got his degree, and immediately abandoned those pursuits in favor of joining the famed Piccolo Teatro. His folks didn't speak to him for six months, until, of course, he started making them much prouder of him than they would have been had he fixed someone's wiring.

He eventually created a theater for young people called Informativa ("To Inform") that went to culturally deprived cities. They opened in Lecco, they next played Catania, then onto Ragusa -- but in a most unconventional manner. Interpreted Whittingham, "He used to go to where teenagers were holding a dance, and just margin off an area with chalk, and put on a play like Pinter's -- uhhhh?"

It took us a while, as Giorgetti kept miming the pulling of a rope, then used one hand to rise slowly upwards, until we realized he meant The Dumb-Waiter. Not an easily translatable word.

Not an easy play to understand, either. "Milan audiences knew and understood it, but Sicilians took a while to get it. There were many questions during the discussion after the play."

Pinter, incidentally, is a particular favorite of Giorgetti. So is Albee, Miller, and Mamet, Osborne, Genet, Mrozcek, all of whose plays he then did ("only after reading them, never after watching them") when he ran La Contemporanea (The Contemporary Theater). He left in 1979 to become an impresario. "Not for business," he insists, "but for culture."

I asked if he's done any Dario Fo, the new Nobel Prize-winner. He said no, but added that they were good friends, and laughed when Whittingham passed on my remark that that's probably why they're still such good friends. "I don't want to have that political a mark on my theater," he explained.

This is his second year of doing a Festival in New York. He's also been organizing a "Great Classics of the Mediterranean," so that he can include Pirandello and Machiavelli along with Greek classics. And to make matters all the more non-traditional, he's organized a Japanese company to do Dionysus.

Since he's been in New York, he's only been able to fit in one visit to the theater, which, fittingly enough, was Eduardo de Fillippo's Filumena. He liked it much less than I did. "I appreciated the attempt to get into the Italian sensibility," was his diplomatic way of putting it.

But last year off-Broadway, he saw Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, and so admired it that he published it in Sipario (Curtain), the monthly magazine he publishes, which seems to be a combination of Entertainment Weekly and American Theatre.

Of course, you know I wouldn't be able to speak to a native Italian director without asking about Rugantino, that Neopolitan musical of the late '50s that legendary producer Alexander H. Cohen brought to Broadway in 1964. Less than a month later, it was gone, probably because Cohen kept it in Italian, and used the then-brand-new use of an electronic message board to convey subtitles.

"Rugantino!" Giorgetti exclaimed with astonishment. "Nino Manfredi!"

Well, if he could mention the show's star, I could counter with its second banana. "Aldo Fabrizi," I said, causing him to break into his biggest grin yet, as he extended his arms wide in front of him and joined them together, to indicate a man of considerable girth, as Fabrizi sure appears to be in the souvenir booklet that accompanied the Warner Brothers cast album.

"Garinei and Giovannini," he added, citing the show's composer and lyricist.

"Ornella Vanoni," I said, referring to show's leading lady, who was seen to good advantage in that aforementioned booklet. Just the mention of her name brought forth a lustful leer from Giorgetti.

Look at that! I CAN speak Italian, after all. But that's because musicals are the universal language.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com