Working on a Special Day is an unusual show in every way, and I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to see it.
Working on a Special Day, directed by and featuring Ana Graham and Antonio Vega. Staged by the Play Company and Mexico City-based Por Piedad Teatro at Barrington Stage’s St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, MA, through July 6.
By Helen Epstein
One of the pleasures of attending Barrington Stage is its unusually wide range of productions. For those who like mainstream, state-of-the-art musical comedy, there’s Kiss Me Kate. For those who like more serious work and a glimpse of other theater cultures, there’s Working on a Special Day. How to describe it? A small romantic tragi-comic drama about an encounter, on May 8, 1938, between a working class Italian housewife and a middle class Italian radio announcer. While Antonietta’s Fascist husband and six children are out at a rally to honor the alliance between Il Duce and the Fuhrer, the family parrot flees his cage, flaps out the window, and heads across the courtyard toward the window of a neighbor. Ana Graham (actor, translator, costume designer) plays Antonietta and Antonio Vega (actor, director, playwright) is Gabriele, the neighbor. They also perform eight other roles (nine if you count the parrot Rosamunda) while creating parts of their set and props. The performers also generate their own sound effects. Graham and Vega have taken this two-hander to fringe festivals in Scotland and Australia and now, luckily, to the Berkshires.
Working on A Special Day is a gentle send-up of the 1977 Italian film Una Giornata Particolare that starred the sublime duo, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The movie has a well-crafted, witty script based on a screenplay by Ruggero Maccari that has aged relatively well, despite tropes that may have already been cliches back then. The actors perform the play in a melange of styles that reference TV soap opera, commedia dell’arte, theater of the absurd and Sixties happenings. The piece was first adapted for the stage in Mexico City, in Spanish. Then the Play Company in New York developed this new English language production with the Mexican company Por Piedad Teatro in 2012.
The intimacy of the St. Germain Stage lets you watch the actors close up. They make their entrances casually, as though they were members of the audience who have mistakenly wandered onstage. They are low-key, determinedly untheatrical, making small talk with spectators in their lightly accented English, which is peppered with Italian exclamations as they change from street clothes into period costume: A flowered cotton print dress, apron, and nylon stockings with garters transforms Ana into the housewife Antonietta; white suit, suspenders, and straw that turns Antonio into the broadcaster Gabriele.
Initially, the lackluster set consists of three black walls with two doorways. Then the actors, using pieces of plain white chalk, turn the space into enormous blackboards on which they draw most of the dramatic devices the script calls for. These include elements of the set such as windows and door buzzers, a parrot cage, a portrait of Mussolini, and cartoon-like images of things we are accustomed to regard as props, such as a mirror, a telephone, salt and pepper shakers, a bottle of olive oil, a flowerpot. This is a production that is as delightfully visual as it is verbal and physical. And then there is the innovative sound design, full of sound effects produced by the two protagonists — a combination that I can’t say I’ve ever seen before. At times I found myself thinking of the film The Bridges of Madison County; at other times of an experimental theater company such as Mabou Mines.
The play opens with a peculiar blend of the ordinary and extraordinary: Antonietta is getting her brood ready to attend the Fascist rally with her husband. Then the parrot escapes just as Gabriele, revolver in hand, has sat down in his own apartment across the courtyard determined to take his life. The personal drama is as grim as the political backdrop. Gabriele, who is homosexual, has just been fired from his radio station — “Coward, useless, and with perverted tendencies. That’s what they said,” he explains later — and was about to shoot himself in the head when Antonietta rang his buzzer. The pro-Fascist, devout wife and mother of six finds herself dancing the rumba, making coffee, flirting and fighting with this (to her) mysterious man, going to bed with him despite a gossiping, eavesdropping porter, and enjoying what for many reasons will forever be a “special day.”
The script requires actors with a broad emotional range as well as a dexterity that can turn from realistic drama to make-believe on a dime. Graham and Vega are both excellent actors, always interesting to watch and listen to. Their chemistry is palpable and sometimes breathtaking, given that their complex relationship evolves over 75 minutes from that of strangers to lovers, then to antagonists and eventually friends. Whimsy and human unpredictability are as much on display as fear, loneliness, and despair. It’s an unusual show in every way, and I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to see it.
Helen Epstein is an author and journalist whose work is available at Plunkett Lake Press.com