Mambo Italiano - directed by Edward Niles
by Velika Maxam
he art of story telling certainly begins with a well-written script, but the interpretation in the hands of a focused director can tip the scales towards great entertainment. The passion to produce an excellent stage play requires courage and finesse to mould a story such that the audience is swept away by the narrative and moved by the message behind it. We see this in Whitby Courthouse Theatre’s season premiere of ‘Mambo Italiano’ with the artistic vision of first time Director Ted Niles who cleverly unfolds this comedic and often poignant tale of sexuality, identity, and culture with an interpretation that not only resonates but also delightfully converges comedic performance with truth.
A stage play written by Steve Galluccio, Mambo Italiano’s on screen debut in 2003 produced zany characterizations by Paul Sorvino, and Mary Walsh, to name a few, portraying two Italian-Canadian families forced to confront their own cultural expectations and identity when it’s discovered that their sons Angelo and Nino, are not just friends and roommates but lovers. Their startling revelation sends each family into a pizzelle, forcing them to decide between their sons’ sexuality and their culture and in turn questioning their own personal beliefs of love and family. Both stage and screen versions touch upon the issues of machismo culture versus sexuality, and both are relevant pieces today in demonstrating the struggles of the LGBTQ community and how far our society has come in embracing sexual identity. The stage play, however, allows the audience to form a more intimate connection with the emotional challenges of Angelo and Nino who struggle to find a place in their Italian Catholic worlds for their sexuality and gay identity.
The opening night performance of this show was seamless, which could have been in part to the cast and crew’s hard work and preparation. However, the warm reception from their preview night’s audience may have also helped, which included attendance by invited guests from the Whitby Senior Activity Centre, staff and volunteers of the AIDS Committee of Durham, and staff and students of the Gay Straight Alliance of Anderson CI. Including such pertinent groups to preview this play, one that touches on some important key issues in our community, shows a particular brand of networking that demonstrates well Whitby Courthouse Theatre’s understanding of their role in providing entertainment that is relevant to the audiences they serve. They also must be applauded for straying from the regular community theatre fare, and taking a leap off course to deliver content that is not only entertaining but also edgy and relevant, leading the way hopefully for other theatres to follow suit.
Our story begins when Angelo (Darren Brunke) who decides to come out to his family, much to the reluctance of lover Nino (Mark Boyko), and there is just enough humour woven in by the playwright to carry us through the emotional depth of what is to ensue during the pitting of cultural disappointment by both families against the struggle of two young gay men yearning for personal truth and acceptance. Both Brunke and Boyko blend their individual characterizations well, between their respective Italian identities and the truth of who they are as gay men. Throughout, each actor’s well-timed comic delivery, plus emotional monologues, draws us in further, wanting to see them triumph in their journeys. The pacing and blocking in this play is excellent, allowing for the humour necessary to the piece to be delivered well. As well, kudos to not only the director but to both actors for displaying enough of their intimacy realistically, and in such a way that not only pulls us in to the beauty of their relationship but that we also transcend their sexuality and simply watch with empathy and envy two people lucky enough to find love.
As the story continues, each family battles with the issues of homosexuality and its clash with their cultural expectations. The cast delivers their individual struggles of identity, self-acceptance and its ensuing contentions well, by simply presenting believable performances. Anna Barbieri (Genevive Hebert-Carr) as an example, Angelo’s sister and comrade in arms who encourages his coming out, is also the good Italian daughter expected to be a wife and mother, but the fight against her anxiety that arises from yearning for independence is made very clear on stage. We see this same inner strife with Nino, who is steadfast to the expectations of his dead Italian father, and proud mother while balancing his love for Angelo, and this inner conflict resonates throughout his performance. Even husband hungry Pina Lunetti (Laura McGowan), touchingly recounts her own dreams of becoming a fashion designer, which is quickly quashed by the expectations of her domineering Italian father, forcing her to join the family business, but leaving the audience anguished for her predicament. In fact, each actor in Mambo Italiano has strong moments of truth, communicated well in their monologues. When emotions are conveyed as well as they are in this piece, an actor can still ask themselves, is there yet another layer of depth available to me in this moment? A cast as good as this one, is certainly of the calibre to meet that challenge
The play’s fluidity can be credited in part to a well-plotted and designed set, thanks to set designer Ian Handscomb. Shifting between living room, to apartment, to nightclub, to cemetery, and back again, all done with such ease that we never lose focus in the story line. With the aid of brilliant lighting and well-chosen music, we the audience remain engaged as scene changes are flawless, of which the crew needs to be applauded for. We also get a true sense of the Italian immigrant experience from the Barbieri’s living room, which is juxtaposed next to Angelo and Nino’s urban minimalist flat. Each of these rooms becomes a mirror of the other’s experience, or as Ted Niles mentions “the mirror idea in Ian’s set design is wonderful because although we are all individuals we carry our past with us. So although the placement of the furniture is a mirror of each other’s style, it represents the individuals.” As well, the hanging of the cross in Angelo and Nino’s flat (not indicated in the script), was cleverly placed and symbolic as it tells us, that being gay doesn’t simply eliminate one’s Italian Catholic identity. This finishing touch in set design left me curious to learn how much of the written stage direction was utilized in the play, and to my gratification most of it appears to be Niles’ own interpretation, which is a welcomed change to see productions taking such artistic risks, particularly in community theatre.
Between Maria (Barb Grenier) and Gino (Peter Mazzucco) Barbieri’s chandelier lit dining room, marital minded Lunetti’s roma tomato red evening dress, to the spitfire marinara delivery of Nino’s mother Lina Paventi (Gerri Sefi), we certainly get a primo tasting of Italian culture, which is necessary to the plot. The production team again needs to be applauded, through the director’s vision, in utilizing all the tools available to them to set a mood via well-chosen props, good costuming, and plain old home grown well-developed characters.
The theme of self-expression and approval is strong in Mambo Italiano, leaving one to question, whether gay or straight, how true am I to myself, and must I sacrifice who I am for others, will I be rejected for who I am? This question reappears throughout, and again is the mark of a good director, if we are able to absorb well the theme of the play. It’s well cast, well acted, well conveyed, well directed, comedic, fun and funny, and with the guidance of President and first time Director Ted Niles, who has definitely left his mark on this piece and in a way that really works, the audience is left entertained. Whitby Courthouse Theatre has raised the bar in Durham community theatre, giving audiences the challenge they’ve been looking for in story lines that leave you thinking about your own truth and conviction.
As an aside, after opening night, I was fortunate enough while I was at the Centennial Building, to preview the handmade puppets for their upcoming 2018 production of Avenue Q. I can definitely say that this upcoming production has left me with much anticipation, as the craftsmanship of the puppets is stellar, professional and certainly fantastical, with a level of theatrical flare not often seen in Durham community theatre.
Mambo Italiano continues on for two more weekends from November 16 – 18, 23-25, 2017, with tickets available at their website.