Gender identity, self-discovery, love and family relationships are all major themes explored in “Operetta Burlesque,” an Italian production coming to Ohio State as its first performance in an English-speaking country.
“We’re bringing the world to OSU,” said Lesley Ferris, interim chair of the Department of Theatre.
Written and directed by Emma Dante and performed by Compagnia Sud Costa Occidentale, the play follows a 40-year-old man named Pietro from a small Italian village near Naples, Italy, who doesn’t feel comfortable with himself because he identifies as a woman and feels trapped inside his male body.
“The only escape he has is to get on a train and go to Naples, get dressed up as a woman and be somebody else,” said Francesca Spedalieri, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre who is writing her dissertation on Emma Dante and her work. “It’s a story about self-realization, understanding who you are and coming to terms with it.”
Spedalieri identifies with the play because she is from Policoro, Basilicata, in southern Italy.
“For me, the show is really important because Italy is one of the few Western European countries that is still very backwards when it comes to LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex) rights,” she said.
Spedalieri said she believes “Operetta Burlesque” offers insight into Italy’s outlook on the social issue of gender identity and will allow reflection on how the United States as a society is handling the issue.
“Undergraduate students are forming their own identities and are considering issues of tolerance, of people who are different from them,” said Charles Klopp, a French and Italian professor emeritus who helps work on the play’s subtitles. He said the play addresses issues such as identity and tolerance in a very provocative way and focuses on the oppression of people who are considered different in Italian society.
“All you have to do is open the newspapers or turn on the television news today to see that it is very much an issue before us,” Klopp said.
Spedalieri hopes the protagonist’s story will make an American audience think about the similar experiences closer to home.
“The play is making visible the life of the many Pietros that don’t just live in Southern Italy but also live around us,” Spedalieri said. “Hopefully, we as a civil society can do something to take a step forward so that we finally reach the equality that we keep preaching about.”
Spedalieri said the play consists of a combination of a cabaret style with light tricks, movement, juggling and dancing. Four actors are on stage, with two speaking actors and two “movers,” which are actors who will dance and interact without speaking. The speaking actors are Pietro’s actor and a male actor who plays both Pietro’s father and the mother. Pietro’s lover and Pietro’s female counterpart are the movers.
Spedalieri said Dante is a “very strong-willed woman” who created a space and recruited actors who were tired of the traditional theaters.
“She created this laboratory where they meet and they work on devised works for years,” Spedalieri said. “This play has been almost two years in the making. They start with an idea, and then they figure out how the characters move, what they say, and they do it all on their feet.”
Klopp also praised the production for the diversity of its elements.
“It’s an extremely cutting-edge company that deals with provocative themes,” Klopp said. “What’s extraordinary about her company is the use that she makes of music, dance, costumes, lighting. She’s extremely innovative in this way.”
Spedalieri said “Operetta Burlesque” will be spoken in two Italian dialects because Dante incorporated the actual dialects of her actors into her characters. One is the Neapolitan dialect, which Pietro speaks, and is native to Naples. The second is the Sicilian dialect, which is what the mother and father speak, and is native to Sicily, Italy, as they are Sicilian immigrants in Naples.
“She uses what these actors know and what they bring in culturally and linguistically to create this work together,” Spedalieri said.
The play’s English translations, written by Spedalieri, will be projected above the stage during the performance. She assured that following the actors’ body language will also help playgoers understand what’s happening.
“It is a very physical piece with a lot of movement and dance, so I think that will make it a lot more accessible,” she said.
Dante’s performance will be the first time her company has performed this play for an English-speaking country, and Spedalieri encountered difficulties getting her to OSU.
“It took a lot of knocking on doors,” Spedalieri said. “We couldn’t have done this without the support of the Theatre Department, the French and Italian Department and the division of Arts and Sciences. We really couldn’t have done this without a generous donation that came through the Columbus Foundation.”
“Operetta Burlesque” has a runtime of 55 minutes, according to Spedalieri, and is set to be performed at the Drake Performance and Event Center at 7:30 p.m. from Wednesday through Friday.
The symposium, “‘Blurring Boundaries without Burning Bridges’: Italian Contemporary Performance, the Theatre of Emma Dante and Beyond,” is slated to take place Thursday and Friday.
A talkback is scheduled for Thursday after the performance for audience members to engage with the company and talk about the show.
Ticket information is available at theatre.osu.edu.