'A Special Day'. Pic: Carol Rosseg

Festivals, Stage

‘A Special Day’: a conversation with Ana Graham and Antonio Vega

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A Mexican theatre company’s minimalist stage adaptation, for two actors, of a classic Italian film about fascism is a somewhat unusual offering even under the broad canopy of Perth Fringe. Even more intriguing is the fact that it’s being staged in the former Home Economics classroom at Perth Girls School (which is this year’s designated Fringe Hub), rather than as a part of a curated season at a more conventional venue (before heading on to the Black Box Theatre at the Adelaide Fringe later in February).

A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare) was originally a 1977 film by Ettore Scola starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Set on the day of Hitler’s official state visit to Rome in 1938, it deals with an encounter between a married woman (Loren) and her gay neighbour (Mastroianni) who live in the same apartment complex. Antonietta is a submissive housewife whose Fascist husband is attending the celebrations with their children while she stays home to do domestic chores; Gabrielle is a radio announcer who has lost his job (and is about to be arrested and sent to a concentration camp) because of his sexuality.

The film is exceptional for many reasons, not least because of the casting-against-type of its two leads – icons of heterosexual glamour who had appeared together frequently in romantic comedies and passionate melodramas like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style.

In A Special Day they play relatively downbeat characters though their beauty, charm and screen chemistry are still evident, especially in a marvellous scene where Gabrielle teaches Antoinetta the rumba. As a film that more or less belongs to the Italian realist tradition (the first five minutes or so are actually taken from archival propaganda footage of Hitler’s arrival and meeting with Mussolini in Rome), it was also an unusual venture for Scola, who despite being a member of the Communist Party was mostly famous as a director of satirical comedies.

The play (also called A Special Day) remains true to the film’s spirit of iconoclasm, and has picked up a swag of awards at previous Adelaide and Prague Fringe Festivals, as well as performing elsewhere around the world, since it was first developed and presented in New York in 2013 in partnership with The Play Company (now renamed PlayCo).

Earlier this month I had a chat with the show’s co-creators and co-performers Ana Graham and Antonio Vega (who are also a couple) in an apartment building (which is somewhat more up-market than the one in the film) in downtown Manhattan, where their Mexico City-based company Por Piedad Teatro now has a second home.

Graham, who is also Artistic Producer, explains that “Por Piedad” means something like “for pity’s sake”. She established the company in 1999 to stage high-quality local Mexican productions of contemporary international plays, operating as Graham puts it “in the tropical way,” i.e. without any substantial state funding or resources.

Elaborating on the rationale behind the production, Vega explains that, as always in theatre-making, there is a ‘how’ as well as a ‘what’.

Vega, who joined the company in 2004 and became Artistic Director in 2012, points out that Graham’s early productions were nevertheless relatively large-scale, and involved established Mexican actors, directors and designers. In contrast A Special Day sounds about as minimalist as you can get, as it involves two actors (Graham and Vega, who also co-direct) using basic costumes, a few props and (crucially) chalk, which they use to draw windows, doors and other features and objects onto three portable black walls, which constitute the eminently tour-friendly set design.

I ask about the influence of Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’, which they acknowledge along with the work of Eugenio Barba and Peter Brook’s idea of ‘the empty space’. Initially however the impetus for the show was pragmatic, even opportunistic. Essentially they wanted to establish the company on the New York theatre scene, but felt hamstrung by their lack of contacts, “as well as by our Mexican accents”.

A Special Day sounds like a very special play, and one not to be overlooked in the hurly-burly of Fringe.

Consequently they were looking to do something different from regular Broadway (or even off-Broadway) theatre-fare, that would also openly acknowledge the cultural clash between their heritage and the material. (The show begins with them introducing themselves as Mexican actors and explaining that they not in fact Italian, although apparently some New York audience members congratulated them afterwards for sounding so “authentic”).

Fortuitously two colleagues in Mexico City had already come up with the idea of a semi-staged adaptation of A Special Day (based on watching the film but without referring to the actual screenplay) as a kind of ‘hypothetical’ production (somewhat along the lines of Orson Wells’s Moby Dick Rehearsed) in which the closing scenes of the film were not even enacted but merely described. Vega says he never even saw this version, but was inspired when Graham told him about it. With their colleagues’ permission they borrowed the concept and fleshed it out, adding more detailed period costumes and props, but still using chalk to delineate the set, in order to encourage the audience to “suspend their disbelief”, Graham says.  They also duly contacted the Scola estate in order to secure the rights, but “the Italians”, as Graham wryly calls them, insisted that they adhere to the original script, including all the characters and dialogue, which in turn added to the element of absurdity that is part of the show’s playful aesthetic.

Elaborating on the rationale behind the production, Vega explains that, as always in theatre-making, there is a ‘how’ as well as a ‘what’. In this case, the ‘how’ (i.e. the theatrical form of the show) came first, and determined the ‘what’ (in the sense of the show’s content).

When they first chose this particular film as their source material eight years ago, the current global rise of the populist far right had scarcely begun, and the likes of Bolsonaro and even Trump were not yet in power, though oppositional figures like Le Pen were already on the scene. Now, as Graham sadly observes, the apparently secure achievements of post-war democracy and tolerance (which is the word she uses to describe what, for her, the film is fundamentally about), are once more in peril, and even ideas like feminism or the right to be gay have to be re-articulated and fought for all over again.

Vega adds that for him the film demonstrates how fascism is not just about politics, but is a mentality (the audience are ironically greeted as “good fascists” at the beginning of the play). Graham points out that Loren’s character in particular is an unquestioning and enthusiastic admirer of Mussolini, and tellingly compares her with women who voted for Trump. She argues (somewhat more debatably perhaps) that Antonietta’s compliance with sexism, racism and homophobia are primarily due to ignorance, which gradually evaporates when she gets to know Gabrielle more intimately (if only things were that simple, I can’t help reflecting, reluctantly acknowledging to myself the limits of the film’s humanism).

They’ve been doing the show for eight years now, and remark that its creative development, rehearsal process, production style and evident success with audiences have all had a significant impact on their subsequent work as a company and as individual artists (Vega also works as a freelance actor and director outside the company). In particular, they acknowledge how co-directing and performing in the show was initially a challenge for them (especially as a couple), and even led to conflict, until they realised that they both needed to stop trying to “impose their will by force” –one definition of “what fascism really means,” as Vega observes. He says he now takes a more collaborative approach on other productions, for example when recently directing a show with a larger cast in which he also performed.

For all these reasons, A Special Day sounds like a very special play, and one not to be overlooked in the hurly-burly of Fringe. At the end of the film, when all hope seems lost, we remember that something has perhaps has been conceived, for Antonietta at least, on what has been for her – secretly, but no less importantly –  a special day.  I for one am looking forward to seeing that spark rekindle in this production.

A Special Day runs from February 3 to 16 at the Fringe World Hub, Home Economics, Perth Girls School.

It then runs from February 25 to March 15 at the Black Box Theatre, Adelaide.

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