"This hopeful play may even make sense as holiday entertainment."
- Jason Zinoman, the New York Times
Dario D'Ambrosi, the Italian actor/playwright and founder of "Pathological Theater," has, for 27 years, held a mirror up to our nature with plays about society's treatment of the insane. To refashion one of his formative early plays and share it with a wider audience, Mr. D'Ambrosi will direct a new version of his "Days of Antonio" (I Giorni di Antonio, 1981) at La MaMa E.T.C. from December 20 to 30, 2007 in its First Floor Theater. There is a cast of four. Celeste Moratti, an Italian actress now living in NY, will appear as Antonio, in the role first created by D'Ambrosi for himself.
"Days of Antonio" is based on a true story that took place in 1916 in Veredo, a small town near Milan, Italy. Antonio, a disabled boy, born with one leg shorter than the other in a poor peasant's family, is locked by his parents in a roost to live with the chickens and to be shown off from time to time like a circus attraction. He grows up with the hens, identifying himself with the king of the henhouse, the rooster. At the age of fifteen, he starts satisfying his natural instincts with the hens, but one day his parents catch him with a prostitute and decide to lock him in an insane asylum. "Days of Antonio" starts the day the unlucky boy is admitted into the asylum, where he finds out the truth: he's not an animal and will never be a human being. The story swings between tragedy and comedy like life in a madhouse from the point of view of the insane.
Dario D'Ambrosi discovered the historical case of Antonio in 1979, during a three-month period when he voluntarily locked himself into the Paolo Pini psychiatric hospital of Milan. It was the aftermath of the Basaglia law, which closed the madhouses in Italy. The relationship between the mentally ill and society were a burning social issue in the Italy of his youth. So at age 19, in the midst of a promising professional soccer career, D'Ambrosi decided to immerse himself in the lives of the insane to learn about these extreme states.
He discovered the case of Antonio when he snatched the boy's actual medical reports from a doctor's valise. He subsequently discovered the scandalous history of this case. In Antonio's day, psychiatric patients judged "socially unacceptable" were commonly locked up by an order from the Mayor and left to die. Like many other cases of this sort, Antonio's had been suppressed, but there were enough traces left for a play to be born.
An earlier version of "I Giorni di Antonio" attracted very little attention when it debuted at La MaMa January 15-29, 1981. Dario'Ambrosi directed, with staging by Ben Moolhuysen. The cast featured Dario D'Ambrosi as Antonio, James Levin as Giacomo and Gabriel Barry and Doris Pettijohn in the other roles. There were two subsequent productions in Italy in the early '80s. In 2007, D'Ambrosi decided to re-make the play. Earlier this month, he staged a completely new version of "I Giorni di Antonio" at the Teatro Patologico Festival in Rome, in the Nuovo Colosseo Theatre, with Celeste Moratti in the title role. Ms. Moratti will continue as Antonio at La MaMa, but the other three parts have been cast with American actors.
Celeste Moratti grew up in Milan, graduated from the conservatory program at The Stella Adler Studio and now divides her prolific career between Italy and New York. She made her La MaMa debut last season in D'Ambrosi's "A Crazy Sound." She has just completed principal photography for the feature film "My Mother's Fairy Tales," directed by Paola Romagnani, in which she plays the leading role. David R. Duenias plays Giacomo, a fellow patient; Gerry Sheridan plays the Female Nurse/Mother and Ira Lopez plays The Doctor.
This production will be the third of his plays that D'Ambrosi has directed in New York without appearing in them. His first was "The Pathological Passion of The Christ" (La MaMa, 2004), which he staged with an American cast in and made into a film later that year. The film has finally completed post-production and will soon be entered in festivals. His second was "A Crazy Sound" (La MaMa, 2006), in which six patients in an asylum created a symphony using the materials of their beds as instruments. Reviewing that production, NY Times critic Jason Zinoman called it a "jaunty new musical" which was "an almost documentary portrait of their mundane and occasionally tedious habits, a snapshot taken from an outsider's point of view." The review concluded, "Mr. D'Ambrosi has done something quite amazing. He has made a feel-good musical about the mentally ill."
ABOUT DARIO D'AMBROSI
The NY Times' D.J.R. Bruckner has written, "Any piece by Mr. D'Ambrosi is about each member of the audience. A viewer who surrenders disbelief for a moment will be carried away in an unimaginable world of chaos, wit, bewilderment, mirth, anger, disgust and a kind of sweet sadness, and will leave it with a sense of relief and loss." In the '80s and '90s, Dario D'Ambrosi marched irresistibly into the forefront of Italy's theatrical ambassadors, a cohort led by Pirandello, DiFilippo and Dario Fo. In 1994, he received the equivalent of a Tony Award in his country: a prize for lifetime achievement in the theater from the Instituto del Drama Italiano. D'Ambrosi first performed at La MaMa 24 years ago and has been in residence there nearly every year thereafter. In the US, he has also performed at Lincoln Center, Chicago's Organic Theatre, Cleveland's Public Theater and Los Angeles' Stages Theatre, among others.
Rosette Lamont wrote in Theater Week, "The yearly appearance of the Italian writer/performer Dario D'Ambrosi at La MaMa is cause for celebration." In a definitive essay, she traced D'Ambrosi's aesthetic to his close study of Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille. Critic Randy Gener, writing in The New York Theatre Wire, stated "his theater is a form of social realism that is also an idee fixe. With unusual openness and frankness, his theatrical aesthetic openly embraces the extremity of their forms, emotions and ideas, and it is, thus, called teatro patologico."
In interviews, D'Ambrosi has cited a debt to Commedia dell' Arte, explaining that the art form derived from "normal" people's view of the village idiots, or zanni, of whom Punchinella was a prototype. D'Ambrosi's Teatro al Parco in Rome is currently located in a children's psychiatric hospital. He formed the Gruppo Teatrale Dario D'Ambrosi (since renamed Teatro Patalogico) in Italy in 1979.
D'Ambrosi's first international "Pathological Theater Festival" was held in 1988 in a mental hospital in Rome. The audience, he says, was made up of people who were normal and people who were sick, and you couldn't tell which were which. He also organized an acting unit in an adolescent ward and helped them put on a play, but unlike the Marquis de Sade in Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade," D'Ambrosi did not invite anybody "normal" to watch. Subsequent festivals of this type have been open to the public and have helped raise money to help Italy's growing population of mental patients who have been "released" from institutions.
D'Ambrosi's La MaMa productions also include a wide variety of notable works. "Cose Da Pazzi (Mad Things Out of This World)" (1995) was a play on useless technical theories of the psychiatrists and the deep state of alienation in which the psychiatric patient lives. "La Trota (The Trout)" had its American premiere at La MaMa in 1986 and was revived in 1997. In this play an old man, trapped by his fetishist acts, turns the trout he has purchased for dinner into a love symbol and the object of an inevitably doomed passion for life. "My Kingdom for a Horse (Un rengo per il mio cavallo)" (1996) was inspired by "Richard III." D'Ambrosi portrayed Shakespeare's villain as a schizophrenic fetus trapped in internal dialogue with his unloving mother. Ben Brantley (New York Times) hailed the production as a remarkable interpretation that "taps right into primal terrain most of us avoid exploring."
In 1998, D'Ambrosi adapted the Peter Pan story into "The Dis-Adventures of Peter Pan vs. Capitan Maledetto" which critic Randy Gener, writing in The New York Theatre Wire, called "the most utterly charming of D'Ambrosi's allegorical explorations of the irrational," warning "You'd be a fool to miss it." In 2000, D'Ambrosi celebrated 20 years of productions at La MaMa with a serial retrospective with three of his most singular plays: " All Are Not Here (Tutti Non Ci Sonno)" (1980, 1989), a solo performance in which an inmate from a psychiatric ward is victimized by neglect in the outside world, "Frustration (Frustra-Azioni)" (1994), a play on a butcher's psychotic obsessions, and "The Prince of Madness" (1993), a story of a crippled man selling human beings who in the end are revealed to be his family. "Nemico Mio" (1988, revived 2003) was a maverick Vladimir-and-Estragon-type play in which two inmates of a psychiatric hospital, one speaking and one mute, engage in elaborate, poetic fantasies of being at the beach.
Mr. D'Ambrosi also sustains a prolific acting career. He played the Clown in Julie Taymor's film version of "Titus Andronicus" (1999) with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. He is director and co-author of "The Buzzing of Flies" (2003), a Hera International film produced by Gianfranco Piccioli, with Lorenzo Alessandri and Greta Schacchi (the latter co-starred with Harrison Ford in "Presumed Innocent"). In 2005, he was seen in "Ballet of War," about the clandestine immigration of Albanian people into Italy. But his most well known film appearance may be as the Roman Soldier who mercilessly whipped Jesus in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The villainous part caused strangers to glare at him scornfully on the streets of Rome while the film was playing. Zachary Pincus-Roth, writing in the New York Times, reported that Mr. D'Ambrosio says he still has dreams in which Jesus - with the face of Mel Gibson - assures him that it was all worth it. The entire experience ultimately inspired him to create "The Pathological Passion of the Christ," which is based on the idea that many of Jesus' contemporaries considered him insane.
D'Ambrosi is about to open a new venue in Rome which will be a home for his resident company of professional actors and his drama school for psychiatric patients. Its productions will include collaborations from all over the world and it will be an opportunity for D'Ambrosi to tighten his bond with Ellen Stewart, Founder and Artistic Director of La MaMa.
From an Asylum, Dark Tidings of Hope
Jason Zinoman, the New York Times
December 22, 2007
The Italian avant-gardist Dario D’Ambrosi has been establishing a new downtown theater holiday tradition: Christmas in the madhouse.
For the past two years he has directed his won bizarre and highly physical plays set in mental hospitals. Last year his production of “A Crazy Sound” was – I kid you not – a rollicking musical about the mundane routines of the mentally ill. Now he brings back his harrowing “Days of Antonio,” first produced in 1981, about a teenager, Antonio, placed in an institution by his parents after they caught him with a prostitute. There’s no fear of this disabled boy’s ever saying, “God bless us every one.” Since his parents locked him in a chicken coop for most of his life, he doesn’t speak at all, growling and gasping like a beast throughout the entire drama.
Based on real events in 1916 in rural Italy, the play has a carefully choreographed and dramatically potent opening image that features Antonio (Celeste Moratti) emerging from the white sheets of his bed like a newborn chick crashing through an egg. Ms. Moratti is an Italian actor whose resume includes a degree in theoretical philosophy and course study at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. She roots the show, which has its jarringly silly moments, including a musical number, with a boldly feral performance of a boy stuck between the worlds of the sane and the mentally ill and the human and the animal.
Ms. D’Ambrosi begins the drama on Antonio’s first day in the mental hospital, when he meets Giacomo (David R. Duenias), his roommate, who loudly insists on maintaining his own space.
A theme of the work is how indistinguishable the sane are from the insane. What separates the two, Mr. D’Ambrosi seems to say, has more to do with politics and morality than with science. That may be simplification, but it might not bother this director since, in the end, he aims quite anapologetically for the heart-strings.
Antonio can hardly speak or stand up, but there is a real tenderness in his relationship with Giacomo, who tries to help him act more like a human. This hopeful play may even make sense as holiday entertainment. Why not? Your family is probably driving you crazy already.