— Robert Salvador and Lucia Frangione. Photo by Ron Reed.
If Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built, Pacific Stage is the house that Lucia saved.
Mounted on a proverbial shoestring budget, Lucia Frangione’s autobiographical drama Espresso rescued the West 12th Avenue venue at the proverbial eleventh hour in 2003, saving Artistic Director Ron Reed’s proverbial neck, as Reed happily confides in his program notes eleven years later.
So it’s a good news story that Frangione has returned to Pacific Theatre, where six of her twenty-five plays have premiered, and her two-hander Espresso is once again attracting sold-out audiences. Not only is Frangione’s confident performance as Rosa and a myriad of other characters a joy to behold; her stage partner Robert Salvador deserves high praise for his ability to serve as a nimble and flexible second fiddle, allowing his leading lady to shine, much like a fine dance partner who proves himself gracefully inconspicuous.
Reciting bits of the Song of Solomon, Salvador enters as a carnal spirit while Fangione lies prone, voluptuous, resplendent in a nightie. The language is poetic, loaded, celebratory. We are in a shifting literary landscape rather than a physical locale. For almost two hours a pair of actors will transmutate, shape-shift, even adopting roles of a different gender, while the text forces the listener to stay alert. It’s a wild ride but the taxi driver knows the way.
Rosa gets a call. Her father has nearly died in a car accident. She hasn’t spoken to her father Vito for two years, but she has her father’s eyes. There is a plane ticket waiting for her at the airport. Her presence is required, expected.
All her Italian-Canadian relatives have gathered at the hospital. Safety in numbers. Rosa travels five thousand miles to be at his bedside, entering the grief spotlight with Vito’s mama and Vita’s second wife who is not Rosa’s mother. The crude second wife and the old-school mama hate each other. Male relatives stuff pink fifties into her hand, welcoming Rosa back into the suffocating fold. “My relatives pat me tenderly as if I am rising bread,” she says.
That metaphoric, dream-like opening sequence reverberates. We have bodies. Bodies make us mortal. This awakening to physicality is a constant thread in Espresso as we proceed to learn the life story of Catholic-raised Rosa who remained a virgin until her late twenties. We keep returning to earthy, biblical passages from the Song of Solomon because Rosa has found work in Wasp-ish Ottawa as a writer for wedding reception invitations. As someone who makes her living from nuptials but has herself eschewed being a bride, Rosa is an unpicked rose.
Everyone in the family knows she had this thing for Tony. But they never did it. The food-obsessed Italian clan mostly feels sorry for Rosa who has an English mother, rarely referenced. That part of her make-up just doesn’t count. They want to ply her with food, awaken her, fatten her for the pleasure of sacrifice. We have bodies! Vito means life. Her father was a womanizer. That’s a good thing. He was handsome and he knew it. Sex is God’s way. Eat, eat. Love, love. Catholic guilt about sex is really just a way to enhance the value of the carnal.
Rosa’s forced re-entry into this southern Italian orbit – Vito’s family harkens from Calabria, not the north – prompts Rosa to reassess her lovelessness and her loneliness. “My story, my family, my blood,” says Rosa/Lucia.
She visits the scene of her father’s car crash, not far from the hospital. A dog licks the blood on the sidewalk. She encounters an angry man whose children could have been killed by the crumpled car. Vito fell asleep at the wheel, crashed into a lamppost. The doctors say he has a lacerated heart and he might not pull through the operation.
Rosa recalls that one time Vito came to see her in Ottawa and he was appalled when he looked into her empty cupboards. Her father immediately went out and bought tons of groceries. He cooked for her for a week. In the program notes, Frangione confides that her father really did come to her place once and cook for her for a week. “Even if I only got one piece of bread left,” he told her, “you and me, we break it in half.” Much of what we see and hear in Espresso is therefore true. This lends power to Frangione’s delivery. She owns this story. My story, my family, my blood.
By now, she has also mastered her performance. The difficult, split-second transmutations are handled seamlessly: voice changes, character changes, set changes, exhortations, jokes. Most plays in Pacific Theatre fall prey to the limitations of the theatre-in-the-round setting that is splintered into two opposing grandstands. But Frangione and Salvador’s dizzying merry-go-round of characters has been blended perfectly with astute choreography that literally keeps them going in circles.
It’s the comedy of Espresso in the first act that renders the action most sublime. As the drama of the accident unfolds, Rosa/Lucia is imitating her various kin with hilarious panache. To wake him from a coma, someone tries to shout, “Vito, Italy won the World Cup!” Best of all is Frangione’s delivery of crude comments [“I could walk around with a banana up my ass and he wouldn’t even notice.”] and an unforgettable monologue about just how obviously unattractive it is to be skinny. “Skinny people are famous, but fat people are happy.”
While taking us on a deeply personal journey during which poetry trumps psychology, Espresso also succeeds as an homage to Italianness. This duality is essential for its entertainment value, otherwise we’re watching someone staring into the mirror of their life, selfish and preoccupied. The title arises from the purity of unadulterated coffee. Savour the pure, black bitterness of the espresso.
When comedy is jettisoned for the second act and the array of Italian mannerisms disappears in favour of culminating the tragedy and concocting a somewhat fanciful conclusion for the medical story, Espresso is much less enticing, but the potency of the first act is so mesmerizing that the audience rises for a standing ovation nonetheless. Bravissimo. Successful female playwrights in Vancouver are not a dime a dozen; Lucia Frangione’s Espresso has become an international hit.
It doesn’t get much better than this.