Virginia Rep’s “Saturday, Sunday, Monday” is no weekend in Naples
Virginia Repertory Theater is best known for producing big, splashy musicals to fill their almost 600 seat November Theater venue. In between those crowd pleasing musicals, they schedule what we might call “straight” plays. Drama or comedy, usually domestic stories, smaller in scope. Even when they close their balcony for these performances, they still have several hundred seats to fill downstairs for at least 17 performances.
Given the scope of the theater, you can see why they might have chosen Eduardo de Filippo’s Italian kitchen drama Saturday, Sunday, Monday. The focus is on Sunday lunch in a big Italian family and the domestic entanglements that come to bear when one is weakened by Momma’s slow cooking, famously envied ragu.
The cast is so large and intertwined that instead of a cast list in the program, there is a family tree, followed by a small list of non-relative guests at the table. Living in one structure, either permanently or just overnight, are Momma and Poppa, Poppa’s father, Poppa’s sister and her son, Poppa’s brother, Momma and Poppa’s three children, each with a significant other. Add in the upstairs neighbors, a doctor, a maid and her brother, throw in the tailor for spice and you have your family ragu.
The cast is large. The plot however is small. Poppa and Momma have lost the spice in their love. Accusations and recriminations pepper the much talked about meal. As you might expect in a feisty Italian family, there is shouting, threats, someone collapses but in the end, the marriage, the family and the ragu survive.
As I watched the production, I kept thinking that no one lives like this in America anymore. The days of the multigenerational family home are gone. The only day Momma cooks like that is when we get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. This European tradition lasted in America as long as we were poor. When successive generations gained independent success apart from a family business we all moved out of Momma’s house and scattered only to be reunited on holidays. Not only is the play foreign, this type of family has also become foreign to us.
Not only is this family structure foreign to Americans, so are ethnic families to most of Baptist Republican Richmond. This production featured the most anglicized Italian family I’ve ever seen. Lots of Italian dialogue but not a Neapolitan in sight. Still actors have a job to do and that is to be true to their characters. The director must bring the authenticity. Unfortunately this ragu tasted like sauce from a jar.
Given the plot, the play poses the immediate problem of what to do with the 15 supporting characters. Having no drama of their own, many fall by the wayside. Some are given larger than life personalities so their sporadic comedic interchanges shine. While characters in the periphery come and go the focus is on Momma and Poppa. Picture Anna Magnani and Marcello Mastroianni as the parents. Feisty, passionate, stubborn, dangerously electric. How else to carry the entire play?
Unfortunately, few of the actors were able to rise to that passion. Momma (Kate Burke-Benedict) and Poppa (Wilbur Edwin Henry) had no sexual tension between them. We must believe that theirs was a great passion whose flame has dampened but can be ignited again. Ms. Burke-Benedict came across as if she desperately needed some valium to calm her nerves. The woman should be the earth mother carrying this brood. Ms. Burke-Benedict seemed upset, fatigued and weak. Mr. Henry fared better but he also seemed weak and lacked charisma and fight. When he got to his knees to beg his neighbor to hit him, I thought “that’s where he belongs.” Without the anchor of these two, the play falls to triviality.
I’m happy to say that the best performances came from local actors. Catherine Shaffner, Matthew Costello and Joe Pabst made a great deal more out of what they were given. I was not so happy to see the excellent Bianca Bryant relegated to a trivial role. I know working for the Rep is a coup and a paycheck, but the suppression of talent is a crime. Give her something to do people!
I was very taken with the scene between Joe Pabst (the upstairs neighbor) and Adam Turck (the maid’s brother). Set up by Poppa to release his rage against the upstairs neighbor he distains, Turk and Pabst find they admire each other and end up in big bear hugs. O, that the rest of the play had that much energy.
Someday I’ll write an article about how I think it usually unnecessary to hire outside equity actors and directors when we have so much talent right here. Richmond is blessed with an abundance of such people for a city of this size. I have rarely been “wow’d” by the imports to Richmond. Perhaps the management just likes to go to New York to be noticed. Hardly worth the money. The exceptions being Felicia Curry and Emily Skinner. Bring them back anytime.
Sue Griffin’s costume design seemed right on the mark. The interplay with hats and the making of a suit were delightful distractions. I can’t say I noticed Weston Corey’s lighting design which, most of the time is a good thing. This doesn’t seem like the kind of play where you want the lighting scheme to be another character. The play was well lit. What else can you ask for? I did have some issues with Brian C. Barker’s set design. The kitchen of Act One looked right out of “The Honeymooner’s.” 50’s stove and refrigerator, tight spaces in the work area. The food preparation space was fine, but the choice of shelving on the stage right side of the kitchen with rows of hat molds were curious and out of place. The dining room in Acts Two and Three on the other hand seemed modern and elegant. The colors were muted but somewhat bland. The impression was that the kitchen was on the stage left side of the dining room but it gave no impression of the space we saw in Act One.
When a play does not live up to its potential we can look to the play selection and the performances, but once chosen it is up to the director to make it work. Like the captain of a ship, if the boat goes down, the captain goes with it. So it goes here for Carl Forsman.
“If food be the music of love, play on.” The Act One food preparation was unimpressive. My theater mates say they smelled the ragu. I wanted so much to be intoxicated with smells, but was not. The poor maid chopping onions looked pained with a knife in her hands. Having grown up with a Jewish Momma in the kitchen, I was shocked to see the grandfather bring his hat ironing to the food preparation space. My mother would have smacked him with a ladle. Old man or not.
The lunch scene was a visual pile up. A horizontal table with 14 chairs, half of which forced the downstage actors to have their backs to us as well as preventing us from seeing the actors in the upstage chairs. Calling the set designer! Slant the table, stagger the seating, build a sloped level. Come up with a solution. And when they all got up to leave the table I was reminded of cattle herding.
I know Mr. Forsman is a well credentialed man, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what he was doing. Was this a broad comedy (the maid wildly crossing herself with every challenge) or a naturalistic human dramedy? Even after contemplation, I am not sure.
All in all the performance was inauthentic. The direction choppy and the actors nowhere close to achieving the ethnic flavor of Momma’s ragu that I could not smell. I left the theater unsatisfied and hungry.
Saturday, Sunday, Monday runs through March 6th, you can pick up tickets here
“I’m not trying to give an impersonation I’m trying to kind of get in the head of the man in this play and present a very casual tone.”February 17, 2016
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