This reimagining of Rome in 1800 was first conceived by Franca Valeri in 1978, and it is part of a greater literature on Tosca, Victorien Sardou’s tragic heroine, who is famous for having said that vissi d’arte e vissi d’amore (I lived on art and I lived on love). Tosca e la Alter Due translated as Tosca and the Two Downstairs, produced by Kairos Italy Theater and The Cell refracts Sardou’s Tosca through a downstairs chance meeting of Emilia (Laura Caparrotti), a door keeper, and Iride (Marta Mondelli), a former prostitute. The setting and costuming are aesthetically pleasing, the dynamic between the actresses is good, and the history of the play is fascinating, but most of all it is the redeeming, new permutation of Tosca that is its most unique quality. As the name of the tale would suggest, all the action occurs downstairs, but the actual positioning of Tosca in this tale is more a la Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Hours or Adaptation than anything else. As in both Sardou’s original theatrical piece and later operatic collaboration with Italian composer Giacommo Puccini, Rome is beset with the violent struggle between the old royalists and the reform minded revolutionaries. In this play one also senses the subtext of Valeri’s own life during WWII, when she and her family went into hiding during the Nazi invasion of Italy. Valeri, whose father was Jewish, remained hidden in an apartment backroom with only her mother for a year and a half of her life.
In this play, Emilia is married to a jailor named Fernando, and while she guards the door at the Palazzo Fanese she overhears and witnesses the instability of the world around her. She is most concerned with the off-stage Baron (although there are only two actors in the piece) who resides there and is the most loyal, if not crass, of subjects. Iride appears after some time, purportedly to wait for her husband, a torturer. She reveals though at a key moment that actually she has come because she is planning to leave her husband. The screams of victims heard from above helps to reinforce the audience’s understanding of the brutality of her life.
The Cell feels something like an art gallery. Its ceilings are very high and the audience sits upon plush velvet moss-colored couches standing upon a sleek oak floor. An enormous painted cloth depicting a Roman archway, created by Lucretia Moroni, hangs from the upper level and a simple table and fine cherry wood shelf occupy the stage. Emilia wears the same simple but elegant costume throughout the play: a green turban, a white muslin dress, an apron and a pair of leather healed boots. Iride is stunningly beautiful with thick black locks, a light blue empire cut dress and a sumptuously decorated bonnet with leaves, flowers and bows. The aesthetic of the play succeeds in its simplicity; there is nothing superfluous or irrelevant.
Regarding the direction of Laura Caparrotti, who also acts in the piece as Emilia, one cannot help but feel that the staging and motivations of the characters want more dynamism of emotion and occupation of the physical space. In what seems to be the climax, Iride is seized by violent intentions, but they vanish and one wonders whence they came... and why? The climax may have eluded the anglophone audience because certain slides (on this particular night) stayed too long and others went too quickly, but greater clarification, however accomplished, would benefit the production.
However, not all plays are about climax, and this play is generous with its affective qualities. The flirtations of the women with the audience and between themselves are seductive. Furthermore, whereas Tosca dies, Iride rejects tragedy by beginning a new life. Unlike Tosca, there is no great love, only prostitution. Anyone with a taste for culture will gain something from the experience of these two Italian women “downstairs.”