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Souls of Naples

We're all so different from what we seem -- and then, life changes us so; as soon as our experience puts us in touch with reality, we start scaling down our hopes. --- Gastone
 John Turturro
John Turturro
Eduardo de Fillipo (1900-1984) wrote more than forty plays, which were widely staged, often with the playwright himself in the cast. The one best known to American audiences was Filumena. -- last staged on Broadway in 1980 starring Joan Plowright and Off-Broadway in 1997 starring Maria Tucci but most memorably associated with Sophia Loren's on screen Filumena.

In a well-intentioned though disappointingly executed effort to introduce New York theater goers to the less well-known Souls of Naples, the Theatre for New Audiences commissioned a new translation by Michael Feingold and enlisted Roman Paska to direct a cast headed by John Turturro. Set in Naples at a time when its populace was still recovering from the surreal nightmare of World War II, this is a comic fable with its own surreal take on individual and societal behavior during this period. Its characters are variously described as condemned souls, dark souls, free souls, lost souls, restless souls and sad souls.

The comedy is often reminiscent of the broad comic style of old black and white movie comedies, and even older silent movies, with a fantastical, fairy tale quality overarching everything. As translator Feingold has aptly put it "this play is what would have resulted if Chekhov and Pirandello had sat down together to write the screenplay for a Bob Hope Haunted-house movie."

The haunted house in which the story of this newly translated New York premiere takes place is a genuine sixteenth century, 18-room palace ringed with balconies. The ghosts stalking it are those of a Spanish aristocrat and his lady love who were discovered by and vengefully walled up by her outraged husband several centuries earlier. The present landlord's inability to find paying tenants willing to live with these purported ghosts have resulted in his employing an impoverished Neapolitan named Pasquale (John Turturro) to be its caretaker and rent-free tenant in hopes that he can lay the haunted house rumors to rest. For the forty-five year old Pasquale the landlord's problem is his once in a lifetime opportunity. If he can prove the palace to be fit for occupancy and free of ghosts, it will also bring years of unemployment and failed enterprises to an end and, even more importantly, save his marriage to the much younger Maria (Francesca Vannucci).

The irony of this haunted house saga is that Pasquale's tenancy parallels that of the supposed ghosts. But when Pasquale discovers his wife's wealthy lover Alfredo (Juan Carlos Henandez) in his new apartment he doesn't fly into a rage but deludes himself that the man is a ghost -- especially since that ghost will keep the pocket of his dressing gown magically filled with the money needed to maintain the palace and prove to the neighbors that the palazzo is a place anyone could live in safely and happily. His subsequent acts of denial, executed with absurd high jinx, give the play a universal connection to all of us happy, lost, sad and restless souls. Who among us has not pretended not to see what we don't want to see and to nurse that delusion along in the desperate hope that the reality we prefer will make the one we're denying go away.

John Torturro does his best to make Pasquale the tormented soul envisioned and originally played by the playwright. Max Casella as Raffaele, the knowing doorman and Pasquale's adviser has moments when he comes close to stealing the show. Didi Conn has less opportunity to make an impression as his crazed sister, which is also true of. Francesca Vannucci's excessively understated Maria. Juan Carolos Hernandez does his best to make the malcontented husband or "restless soul" more than a carricature. But it's Rocco Sisto, an actor who never disappoints, who is this production's best realized character. His Gastone Califano is diplomatic enough to reunite his sister Armida (played with zesty ferocity by Aida Turturro, John's cousin) with her straying husband. He also has enough foxy charm to pick up this less than scintillating comedy a final marriage Italian style twist.

Feingold's translation captures De Filippo's flavorful dialogue without jarring anachronisms -- except perhaps Raffaele's insisting that the mover must stay with him because he's an "aloneaphobic " -- or his explaining to Maria that Pasquale's talk about a lost key was really a "metafolk" as when "the real thing gives a kind of helping hand to what you mean." But then these Feingoldian witticisms are in keeping with Raffaele's droll know-it-all personality.

I've been seen and admired some of Roman Paska's highly stylized puppetry works. Unfortunately, the measured pace of those shows does not go with this kind of comedy. Paska's directing tempo is way too leisurely. His most innovative directorial touch is, not surprisingly, as a pupeteer. Instead of flesh and blood children for the cast-aside wife of Maria's lover, we have two life-sized puppets, with Felix Blaska and Bill Bowers as their grandparents and handlers. Though somewhat gimmicky, this does add to the surreal aura of Aida Turturro's operatic confrontational scene.

As seems to be common on other stages this season, this production makes much of a sheer curtain, this one imprinted with two expresso makers that turn up as props for one of Pasquale's balcony scenes of putting on an all's well show for an imaginary neighbor. The semi-abstract set by Donna Zakowska (who's also the costume designer) accommodates the many entrances from the street and the roof of the building but is otherwise not particularly appealing, nor does it evoke the gloomy aura of a country devastated by war.

Having never been a great fan of Bob Hope or Abbot and Costello movies or anything heavily slapstick, my amusement was considerably more occasional than that of some of the people guffawing all around me. Your own enjoyment of Souls of Naples will depend on whether seeing these mixed mood souls portrayed in the broadest possible, slow motion comic terms is your cup of expresso.

To read our review of a revival of Eduardo DeFilipo's Filumena go here.

Souls of Naples
Written by Eduardo De Filippo, translation by Michael Feingold
Directed by Roman Paska
Cast: John Turturro (Pasquale); also Felix Blaska and Bill Bowers (movers & puppet handler)s, Max Casella (Raffaele), Didi Conn (Carmela, Raffaele's sister), Juan Carlos Hernandez (Alfredo Marigliano), Rocco Sisto (Gastone Califano), Aida Turturro (Armida), Francesca Vannucci (Maria).
Set and Costume Design: Donna Zakowska
Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge
Original Music and Music Direction: John T. La Barbera
Music Sound Design: Richard Martinez
Puppets: Roman Paska
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission.
Theatre for a New Audience at theDuke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, 212-239-6200
From 4/02/04 to 5/8/05; opening 4/14/05
Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8:00pm; and Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm. Sunday matinee performances are at 3:00pm. Sunday evening performances are at 7:00pm
Single tickets $60.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 13 press performance
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