The last time the masses witnessed an Italian man named Vito suffer from cardiac complications, it wasn’t just the heart belonging to said patriarch that was devastatingly affected. Such an incident can’t help but be turned into an instantaneous family affair, including but not just limited to its immediate aftermath, as well as the long, slow journey that built up to such a (literally) breathtaking climax.
The New York City premiere of Lucia Frangione’s play “Espresso,” directed by Kim T. Sharp and starring Francesca Ravera and Jesse Koehler, took place this past Monday at the off-Broadway theater Urban Stages in Midtown Manhattan. The staged reading’s set was simply comprised of one chair, center stage, two stands for the actors’ scripts, and a fluid embodiment of the holy trinity of important women in Vito Dolores’s (possibly soon-to-be-ending) life. In just under ninety minutes with no intermission, along with Mr. Sharp’s sparse yet compelling sound design, Ms. Ravera and Mr. Koehler take turns personifying the many members of the Dolores family at a Canadian hospital’s ICU after the clan’s patriarch is involved in a severe car crash.
The emotions run high throughout the play, like in a Hollywood epic, but the brisk pace, perhaps matched only by that of the screwball comedies of the thirties, exhibits an inherent trust between the actors and the audience. Clever banter and meticulous metaphors abound in Ms. Frangione’s bold and brilliant script, yet no word ever feels misplaced, forced, or indulgently included for the sake of ostentatiousness. The actors confidently give convincing performances, no matter the role they are playing in any given moment. In one scene, Ms. Ravera is a middle-aged prima donna in a fox-fur coat while Mr. Koehler is Jesus praying on top of a mountain; in the next, she is the very single, very scared thirty-year-old Rosa, while he is her hunched-over grandmother and namesake, Nonna. The intrinsic intimacy of the story evolving in real-time never falters, as both actor and actress are not afraid to play in this play, enjoying themselves in the script’s effortless poeticism. It is a delightful dramatic manifestation of what the Italians themselves coined as sprezzatura: studied elegance, careful grace, the smartest and sexiest kind of conscious finesse that champions the connection between the playwright’s mind, the actor’s body, and the character’s soul, thoughts, words, and dreams.
“enjoying themselves in the script’s effortless poeticism”
One of the most ravishing recurring elements of the story is the role of nom noms and nourishment. Well, of course! This is, after all, an Italian story, and the very title of this show pays homage to the black and bitter drink some consider to be a nectar of the gods. (In a show full of twists and turns and welcome tricks up the playwright’s sleeve, a tragedy occurs when a mere cup of coffee creates chaos in the OR). If Vito is the sun – a bright star that burns out too quickly thanks to a whole lotta drinking, smoking, and fucking – at the core of the Dolores family’s solar system, then the three most significant celestial bodies that orbit him are his mother Nonna, his second wife Cinzella, and his daughter and only child Rosa – all of them played by Ravera.
As seen in flashbacks, present-day interactions with other characters, and subconscious rendezvouses with Eros himself, it is evident that Nonna worships her son as if he is the Son of Man. Since the death of her husband, Nonna’s center of her universe has unequivocally been Vito. (A painfully poignant moment occurs when she washes her son’s feet, recalling the Anointing at Bethany. Nonna even muses on Mary as she does so, though the writer of this review also thought of Jesus, in an act of profound friendship and vulnerability, washing his disciples’ feet the night he was to be betrayed. Of course, Maundy Thursday is a somber evening for Christians, but as Doreen St. Felix of The New Yorker tweeted during this year’s Holy Week, it could also very well be “the kinkiest night in churchery”). Nonna is and always has been the provider, defined strictly by her relationships and servitude to other people, by her role as wife, mother or grandmother, offering food and coffee and doling out life advice – whether by request or absolutely unsolicited, both during their days in Italy and now in Canada. But the potentially life-or-death implications of her son’s accident forces her to confront parts of herself that she has always suppressed, most likely due to her religiously conservative tendencies that, in her mind, justify her chastising of others (e.g. shaming her granddaughter—and, really, almost all women on planet earth, – for engaging in premarital sex). When Nonna is taken by the god of love, she is whisked away by all that she had previously denied herself. It is both refreshingly liberating (that it’s happening now and at all) and deeply saddening (that it took this long – so, so long – to finally come to fruition).
“Cue: a collective jaw drop. She’s got cojones”
Cinzella, a charming chain-smoker, arrives on the scene with an exaggerated Margo Channing attitude, yet it becomes clear soon enough that she’s deeply misunderstood by her stepfamily. On the exterior, she appears pompous and petty, consistently calling Nonna a “bitch” and, in front of everyone in the emergency room while her husband may be on his deathbed, cavalierly mentioning Vito’s extramarital affairs and trips to places like Rio, where the women were topless (though, as he told her in his version of consolation, their tits weren’t as nice as hers). She’s an outsider to the Doloreses, sensing (not incorrectly) that, because she wasn’t Vito’s first spouse, she will always be seen as an interloper, an arrogant intruder to private matters and old-fashioned ideals. However, as Cinzella tries in her idiosyncratic way to comfort Rosa during their night of distress, she reveals her own personal history with eternal optimism, exposing her impressive if not unsustainable coping mechanism. By the time Cinzella reached middle age, she had already suffered two strokes, along with the trauma of multiple deaths in her own family and other depressing circumstances. Yet, here she is, gleefully taking care of everyone else, all the while looking fabulous and remaining free-spirited. After going through a thousand and one mishaps, Cinzella is the kind of woman who’ll step onto the scene of her husband’s crime looking like a million bucks. She shows Rosa a red ribbon she ties onto her bra, “for good luck.” Rosa questions if, given everything that’s happened to the quadragenarian thus far, the ribbon actually works. What Catholicism is to Nonna is what manic hopefulness is to Cinzella, though the latter isn’t a fool and wouldn’t be caught dead as one. She’s self-aware and insanely insightful, and she isn’t afraid to voice her acute criticisms, even when it may not necessarily be the right time, the right place, or even at the right person. As an example: in the aforementioned mountaintop scene, when Christ tells her that all that he did was for love, she retorts by saying no, it was for glory. Then, she tells him that, next time, he should come down as a woman. Cue: a collective jaw drop. She’s got cojones.
If the clan ostracizes Cinzella, then Rosa has been intentionally avoiding Vito and all the rest of them for the past two years. It’s not immediately evident, but eventually the audience can see why. The writer of this review will refrain from spoiling any more of the story, but one cannot blame Rosa for wanting to stay out of the Doloreses’ gravitational pull. The family’s influence threatens to eclipse Rosa’s complexity, which involves a covertly carnal appetite that will be sure to shock everyone once uncovered. After all, as she tells the audience, everyone famous these days may be skinny, but the happier people in life just so happen to be a lil’ bit fat. The heart wants what it wants, human beings have needs and desires, and Rosa’s about to cause a shitstorm that neither Nonna’s best biscotti nor Cinzella’s most ballsy beliefs can abate. Equally as exhilarating to watch is Mr. Koehler’s rendition of Rosa’s ego, standing up for her when she herself can’t put her foot down, providing a secondary narration to her multi-layered selfhood. In vastly different and strikingly similar ways, each of these three women in “Espresso” feels empty, deprived and hungry: navigating their lifetimes while trying to fill a void, all the while with something unstoppable brewing underneath their surface. But a triangle, as the trope goes, is a tricky shape: the edges are sharp, the corners pointed. One can only hope that the shape of things is or can eventually turn equilateral, that everyone involved can give, receive, and be enough, that everything is going to be okay even if the unimaginable occurs.
“Cosmic chemistry of the two actors: a duet of the divine”
Ultimately, what may be cherished most will be the cosmic chemistry of the two actors: a duet of the divine as Mr. Koehler and Ms. Ravera swap characters, bend their bodies, spin around, hold one another in perfect harmony, and enjoy each other’s company with full conviction in their mutual understanding of the script, the characters, and the electricity between them. Like a Nureyev-Fonteyn pas de deux, an artistic achievement like this can only be possible by two good friends who share one common vision, then exceed those expectations together. When this astonishingly honest, passionately acted, intelligently crafted, and truly heart-stopping play metamorphoses next year, the reader is urged to run – not walk – to see the production. But, remember: do look both ways before crossing, lest you wish to incite the explosive unraveling of an entire inter-generational Italian-Canadian family.
“Espresso” had its NYC premiere via staged reading on Monday, August 5th, 2019. Direction and sound design by Kim T. Sharp. Written by Lucia Frangione (currently residing in Vancouver, British Columbia). Starring Francesca Ravera (NYC-based) and Jesse Koehler (Brooklyn-based). A full production in NYC is slated for 2020. Previously, the show toured throughout Canada to rave reviews.
Image: ACV Photography