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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Zastrozzi: where ideas meet imagination

By George F. Walker
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Featuring Oliver Becker, Amanda Lisman, Sara Orenstein, Rick Roberts (left), Andrew Shaver and John Vickery (far right)

The story: Zastrozzi, the master criminal of all Europe, is out for revenge on Verezzi, a younger man accused of killing Zastrozzi’s mother. When Zastrozzi and his henchman Bernardo finally catch up with Verezzi, they find that the man responsible for keeping Verezzi one step ahead of them may prove to be the bigger foe.

The story summary just provided does not come close to describing the events of this early Walker play. It is a slippery, shrewd piece that keeps the audience guessing at its true style and message. Just when you think it is set in contemporary Europe, the costumes become a mix of “now” and “19th’ century”. Just when you think it is about revenge, an idea that was falling out of fashion in the late 19th century when the play claims to be set, it becomes about art. Just when you think it is about art, it becomes about religion and the natures of good and evil. Just when you are ready for the ultimate smack-down, it becomes about the various ways humans deny their own natures. Finally, heads spinning, Zastrozzi reveals an unsettling penchant for nihilism, and all of the above is done with as much sly humour as melodrama. If there is such a thing as an existential romp, this production is it.

Jennifer Tarver’s direction is as deft as it was in last year’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and in this (literally) whip-fast version, neither she nor the cast miss an opportunity to test boundaries.

Rick Roberts plays the title role with a coolness nearing swagger, but just as he makes Zastrozzi nearly ridiculous, Mr. Roberts tears away the surface to reveal a cruelty that is sickening. Wielding a rapier almost without looking, Mr. Roberts’ Zastrozzi is a man who holds himself above all others, even those for whom he cares (in his own way).

Ultimately Zastrozzi’s foil is the Victor, played by John Vickery. In a crafty bit of staging, Zastrozzi, the master criminal, is dressed all in white, while Victor is clad in black, and wears a long coat that he never removes, making one wonder how much he is hiding. Although Victor is described as ordinary, Mr. Vickery plays the role with an edge – a thinking man’s nemesis, and arguably gives the best performance in the production.

Both characters of Bernardo (Oliver Becker, left) and Verezzi (Andrew Shaver, right) do not like to think: Bernardo, because he likes things simple, and Verezzi, because it seems beyond him to do so. As Bernardo, Mr. Becker provides some comic relief, but is as menacing as Zastrozzi in his own way. Mr. Shaver is almost all comic, because Verezzi is completely, idiotically, oblivious to the turmoil of those around him. As such, it would be very easy for Mr. Shaver play Verezzi as only a twit, but he instead provides a subtle core that makes the audience feel just a wee a bit sorry for him.

The women provide another study in contrasts. Where Sarah Orenstein’s Matilda (left) is a world-class fighter and lover – Zastrozzi’s equal, in fact – Amanda Lisman’s Julia (right) is a bird-voiced virgin who talks too much (like Verezzi, but with more self-awareness). Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Shaver provide one kind of sex-scene while Ms. Lisman and Mr. Roberts provide another, very different kind, but audience members will have to decide for themselves on their efficacy.

The excellent direction and performances, plus superb, imaginative weapon-work, gutsy costumes, sound and lighting (provided by fight directors Tom Campbell and Simon Fon, Theresa Przybylski, Jesse Ash and Robert Thomspon, respectively), makes Zastrozzi a wild, wild ride. In the small Studio Theatre you will get to know them all, perhaps a little too intimately for your own comfort, but you will not regret it.

Zastrozzi is my favourite production of the 2009 season, and I would not hesitate to see it again. It continues in repertory only until October 3rd.

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