Subtitling films works because the performances are prerecorded and therefore predictable; it's easy enough to graft the words onto the picture and get them to sync up to the dialogue. Subtitling (or supertitling) opera works because the words are sung to a melody, and its meter can provide cues as to the proper placement of timely translations. But how does one add titles to a play? How can an actor's delivery be calculated so that the written word matches up with the spoken word?
La MaMa E.T.C., in continuing its tradition of bringing theater from around the world to the New York stage, is presenting an ambitious Italian transplant, The Last Night of Salomé. Performed in Italian with English supertitles (projected onto a discreet black screen above the set), this period piece starring two middle-aged women and one passed-out man has all the theatrics to keep the audience interested, but those not conversant in Italian may have trouble with the plot specifics.
The show opens one hour before dawn in a delightfully divey bar, the prewar, below-ground, brick-walled type. Lighted only by neon signs and weak yellow bulbs, it never gets a single ray of sunshine (and people like it that way). The bar is located in Rome in the 1950s, and its owner, Desi, is busy clearing bottles and verbally abusing her husband, the drunk and dead-to-the-world Buffalo Bill. Then a woman, formally dressed in rumpled clothing, breezes in and demands a drink.
Once the mystery woman removes her large hat, Desi recognizes her as Veronica Lopez, the famous actress currently appearing in Oscar Wilde's Salomé, which Desi has recently seen. Starstruck, Desi forgets that the bar is closed and studies Veronica like a scientist eyeballing a sample on a glass slide. Veronica, glad for the adoration and the alcohol, answers questions, performs, and generally abuses Desi's adulation. They discuss their careers, their husbands, and their desires in real time as it grows closer to dawn.
Perhaps out of the director's fear that only one set and few performers could grow wearisome (or that the language barrier could cause audiences to get bored), the show is highly stylized, peppered with dramatic sound and lighting cues and bold movement. Yet those moments, often played for laughs, don't take away from the authenticity of the experience. Credit must be given to Lydia Biondi and Carla Cassola for their committed, lived-in performances.
Biondi's Desi, a worldly woman trapped in a small-town life, becomes more fascinating as the contradictions in her character pile up. Cassola's Veronica (who, it could be said, is a small-town girl trapped in a worldly life) is selfish but also terribly needy, the kind of person who forms close attachments to people quickly but is quick to forget those attachments if they don't suit her. Veronica is one of those "actressy" characters that actresses love to play, yet Cassola wisely avoids romanticizing Veronica in any way but in Veronica's own mind.
On the night of this review, there were many Italians in the audience; they seemed to really enjoy the production, laughing at things when the English titles gave no indication of a joke and clapping enthusiastically at its end. For those who didn't parlano Italiano, there were still laughs and general understanding, though the laughs came at different times (upon reading the lines rather than hearing the joke told), and the words sometimes came a little too speedy to read when the fast-talking ladies got going.
Perhaps the only nonspeakers who should be discouraged from seeing The Last Night of Salome are those who obsessively need the words to figure out what's going on. The rest of us can rely on the strong performances and production values, which need no translation.