Cher Public

The girls downstairs

altre_dueRome, June 16, 1800. Emilia sits in the lodge of Palazzo Farnese, of which she is the doorkeeper. She is a resilient, strong-willed and somewhat hardened woman. After all, she has long been in the employ of the Palazzo’s formidable occupant, Baron Scarpia, and witness to so much of his wickedness.

She has heard it all and seen it all; she is accustomed to the constant comings and goings, and all sorts of tumult. So, when a celebrated opera singer is glimpsed anxiously rushing upstairs to the Baron’s quarters, Emilia initially does not attach much importance to it. She just voices her chagrin at her employer’s tastes, wondering why this powerful man would waste so much time on an over-the-hill soprano, when he could have any woman in Rome (herself included).

Emilia has a visitor. A younger, attractive woman sneaks into Emilia’s lodge: her name is Iride Sciarrone, and she has come to the Palazzo to fetch her husband. Emilia husband Nando also works in law enforcement a jailer at Castel Sant’Angelo. As a matter of fact, when Iride arrives, Emilia is polishing the expensive silverware Nando has brought home, gifts from prisoners asking for favors.

The two women patiently wait for the end of Sciarrone’s shift. He is working overtime, as his boss has a particularly delicate job to do that night. To kill time, they engage in conversation, commenting the noises, the screams and commotion coming from the upper floor, and gossiping about every body. They dish the dirt about a servile “sbirro”, who has the habit of quoting Latin phrases and who is rumored not to have much interest in the opposite sex; a particularly nasty torturer; a Cavalier suspected of revolutionary sympathies —  even the police chief himself. The juiciest gossip is however reserved for the famous prima donna, trashed for her low birth and easy morals. Even her skills as a singer come into question.

Such is the premise for Tosca e le altre due (“Tosca and the two women downstairs”), a play written by Franca Valeri. Ms. Valeri, who will be 90 years old this year, is one of the most versatile and well-known Italian personalities. Since the 1950s she has been a beloved comedian on stage, TV and the big screen, and a successful playwright. A fervid opera lover, as well a veritable gay icon, Ms. Valeri has founded one of the most prominent voice competitions in Italy, and directed many opera productions. One of her funniest radio sketches was “The Tenor’s Wife”, a parody of the typical stage wife, who refers to her husband as “we”, and is widely thought to allude to Franco Corelli’s notoriously omnipresent spouse.

Tosca e le altre due, premiered in Spoleto in 1978, begins as a light comical satire, and gradually morphs into something darker, with a twist that I will obviously not reveal. Both characters are much more layered than they appear at the beginning. Emilia is authoritarian, conservative, suspicious of anything new and fiercely loyal to her master. Scarpia embodies the only world she has ever known and the key to maintain a sort of social status (in a world like Papal Rome, being the housekeeper of the most powerful person in town has its advantages).  But later she reveals generosity and self-sacrifice. Iride, the outsider (she is from Milan), is a woman with a past and very fearful for her future: her husband his not exactly the most gentle and amiable man in Rome.

The play receives its first American production presented by Kairos Italy Theater, the only New York City based troupe focused on bilingual theater (Italian and English), which performs in a new multi-arts facility called The Cell, located in Chelsea. It is played in Italian, but thanks to the English surtitles, non-Italiophone opera lovers will have no problems at all at following the plot and detecting the numerous, often hilarious operatic allusions.

The sets are, to say the least, parsimonious, placing  particular emphasis on the fine acting. Laura Caparrotti, who is also the producer of the play and KIT’s artistic director, plays Emilia, the role created by Valeri herself. She channels Ms. Valeri’s theatrics to perfection, certainly not an easy task, showing impeccable comic timing and a unique knack in delivering the snide remarks with which her part is peppered. Marta Mondelli made an utterly plausible character of Iride, a role which could lend itself to easy stereotypes. Her progress from frivolous chatterbox to anguished, desperate woman is thoroughly and painfully tangible. Particularly heartfelt was her monologue during “Vissi d’arte”.

The play, a mere 75 minutes long, is interspersed with brief excerpts from the opera itself. Guess whose recording they used?

The show closes on February 21; only four performances are left. For tickets and more information, go to brownpapertickets.com.