Sunday, August 23, 2009

Being Beatrice

The story of Beatrice Cenci, the 16th-century Roman noblewoman who conspired with her stepmother, Lucrezia, and her two brothers to murder her father, Fancesco, after years of abuse, has inspired many artists, starting with Percy Shelley, whose 1820 verse drama, The Cenci, has in turn served as the basis for many subsequent dramatic and operatic adaptations. Two of those operas are Canadian: George Elliott Clarke and James Rolfe's 1999 Beatrice Chancy, which transposes the action and setting to 19th-century Nova Scotia during slavery, and which starred a young Measha Brueggergossman as Beatrice; and, most recently, Fugue Theatre's production of Jenn Griffin and Peggy Lee's experimental operetta Via Beatrice, which concludes its brief run at Festival House Theatre on Granville Island with two final performances at 2 pm and 8 pm today.

Griffin and Lee juxtapose Beatrice's story with that of Diana (Lucia Frangione), a present-day Canadian woman, who has traveled to Rome in an attempt to get over the death of her daughter, Nicole, who has committed suicide following a traumatic rape. In Rome, Diana meets the much younger Alessandro (Marco Soriano), a former DJ with emotional baggage of his own who now offers tours of the "haunted" city that focus, in particular, on Beatrice, who is said to haunt the Sant'Angelo bridge, where she and her family were executed. Diana and Alessandro begin a tentative romance that is equal parts Roman Holiday and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (both Hepburns, Audrey and Katherine, are savvily mentioned at one point by Diana) under the watchful eye of a local cafe owner, also named Beatrice (Laura Di Cicco), who seems to have some telepathic connection to her 16th-century namesake.

At a tight 90 minutes, the action of Via Beatrice shifts deftly back and forth between the two timeframes with the aid of sharp lighting changes, and with the three actors taking on multiple roles. And yet while structurally the plot has been finely honed by director Matthew Bissett and dramaturge Leisl Lafferty, it strikes me that thematically there is a struggle to map the Diana/Nicole storyline neatly onto what we witness of the evolving historical relationship between Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia--beyond, that is, their obvious parallel indictments of male violence against women. I don't mean to dismiss this as a powerful critique inherent in the work; however, it strikes me that the Cenci story, as conceived by Shelley, for instance (and as subsequently reconceived, by Clarke and Rolfe and others), is also about other power struggles, including that between the Catholic Church and the landed aristocracy. This aspect of the historical Beatrice's story doesn't really find its equivalent referent in Diana's, and so the audience is at times left to fill in too many conceptual gaps.

That said, the production is, overall, a marvel. Lee's score is especially rich and expressive, and the performers are without exception brilliant, both in terms of acting and vocal delivery. We need more bold work like this in Vancouver, and I urge readers who chance upon this post within the next few hours to rush down to Granville Island today and fill the seats for the show's final performances.


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