In Lucia Frangione's ambitious play, "Espresso," three Canadian women, raised as Italian-Catholics, encounter a mysterious lover who may be the Son of God. He speaks to them in Bible verse and encourages them to express and enjoy physical love.
This version of the Holy Ghost is very different from the one with which they grew up, and each woman has a different response to his offer. Frangione notices that humans need love but they set up myriad impediments to it including religious taboos. She wants to explode some impediments and explore themes like life, love, and death. Not light subjects, but she handles them well. In this locally written play, first produced in 2003, espresso represents life and death.
As the play begins, Rosa (about 30 years old) is conversing in poetry with her imaginary lover, Amante. That pleasure evaporates when Rosa learns her father, Vito, has been in a serious car accident back home in Victoria. She hops a plane and is soon in a hospital waiting room, surrounded by the large and judgmental family she had abandoned two years earlier. She begins to suffocate.
Her anguish is only relieved when Amante draws her up into the clouds of her imagination and continues his seduction. He also visits Rosa's unloved stepmother, Cinzella, and her unloved Nonna (grandmother), inviting them all to experience a culturally forbidden ecstasy fully endorsed (according to Frangione) by the Bible's Song of Solomon. As Rosa's father, Vito, hovers between life and death, the three women hover between life and love. Will these women open themselves to love? Can they? We have hope for Rosa and we root for her.
Rosa (Frangione, who is also the playwright) and Amante (Robert Salvador), tell the story of Rosa's quest by taking on several roles each and populating the stage with many characters including Rosa's large family, a cab driver, an accident witness, and a grief counselor. The actors are tremendous at playing this multi-character drama. They don and discard personas quickly and with apparent ease. They draw attention to the craft of acting and remind us all people are pretty much the same underneath: human beings in need of love.
The production, directed by Sarah Rodgers, is very good. The show is at its best with the realistic story. Rosa fights with her mother and stepmother (battles that are usually hilarious), and Amante narrates the drama of Rosa's search for answers, her visit to the crash scene, her questions about the accident.
The fantasy seduction sequences are a bit problematic. Much of the language is metaphorical Biblical babble, and some is rendered in Italian. The story stagnates but these scenes are thematically important because here the women realize Amante may be God Himself. Rodgers does her best to make the sequences interesting, but Frangione has not written love scenes from Romeo and Juliet: these love scenes are stilted and self-important.
Rodgers provides Frangione and Salvador with a vocabulary of specific gestures, poses, gaits and accents to indicate which persona they are currently wearing. This makes it easy for the audience to follow the multi-character drama. Espresso is not an easy play to stage or for the audience to follow so Rodgers' work here is essential and admirable.
The bare set, by Stancil Campbell, is perfect for the play. A hospital bed that is empty for most of the show is a constant reminder of both the reason for the gathering (Vito's hospitalization) and of Vito's emotional absence from the lives these women have shared with him. Two wooden boxes are used to represent a taxi and also many other settings. This simplicity allows for easy shifts from reality to fantasy. The curtains that surround the acting space, however, are too noisy as they open and close and serve no obvious dramatic purpose. They should be ripped down and thrown in the garbage.
Espresso by Lucia Frangione, directed by Sarah Rodgers, at Pacific Theatre until June 14. Buy tickets here.