Stage Door Review

Whack!

Monday, July 27, 2020

✭✭✭✭

by Mark Weatherley, directed by Monique Lund

The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

July 18-September 5, 2020

Angelina: “I just killed a pig”

The Stratford Festival may have cancelled its 2020 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but has not extinguished live theatre in Stratford. Rather than any of the Festival’s four theatres, The Bruce Hotel has become the de facto centre of theatrical activity in Stratford this summer.

The hotel has graciously created two venues. In its covered parking lot, Sidewalk Scenes has been presenting a 75-minute, four-actor version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that has found such favour with audiences that it has been held over to August 30.

The shaded northwest corner of the large lawn behind the hotel has become the venue for the diverse and imaginative Here For Now Open-Air Theatre Festival produced by one of Stratford’s several independent professional theatre companies. Live fringe festivals may have been cancelled across Ontario, but Here For Now Theatre, undaunted, has boldly pressed ahead with its own festival of six plays running from July 18 through August 29 with physically distanced seating.

The first of these I was lucky enough to see was HFNT’s remount of the play Whack! by Mark Weatherley which received its world premiere by the company in Stratford in October 2019. That production was directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson at Stratford’s Knox Presbyterian Church. Atkinson is currently trapped in Britain due to the pandemic so Monique Lund, the assistant director in 2019, has stepped in to direct the play and completely reimagined it for an outdoor setting. The three original cast members from 2019 – Fiona Mongillo, Olivia Viggiani and Siobhan O’Malley – have returned for the remount. The gripping hour-long play is based on an episode of Canadian history that should be much better known.

In 1911 Italian immigrant Angelina Napolitano (1882-1932) became the first woman in Canada to use the battered woman defence for a murder charge. Angelina married her husband Pietro in Italy and emigrated first to New York and then to Ontario, finally settling in Sault Ste. Marie, where there was an Italian community and where Pietro thought he could earn more money. Angelina and her children saw little of this money since Pietro habitually drank most of his paycheque.

Pietro initially beat Angelina because he kept imagining she was looking at other men. But by 1910 his abuse escalated to the point that one day he stabbed his then-pregnant wife nine times with his pocket-knife. Angelina’s toleration of Pietro’s abuse reached a limit when he, who had previously been so jealous, demanded that she earn money through prostitution. He gave her the ultimatum that if she did not do so, he would kill her.

Instead, while Pietro was sleeping, Angelina took and axe and decapitated him while he slept. She immediately told her neighbour, “I just killed a pig” and waited for the police to arrive. At her trial Angelina had no lawyer, so the judge appointed her a lawyer, Uriah McFadden, whose specialty was property law. After carefully listening to Angelina’s account of Pietro’s horrific treatment of her, McFadden presented the defence that Angelina had no choice but to murder Pietro to preserve her life and the lives of her children. Nevertheless, Angelina’s premeditated act and admission of guilt seemed like insuperable barriers.

While Weatherley’s play sticks closely to the facts of the case, his presentation of them and Lund’s direction enhance the story’s inherent theatricality. Before a word is spoken Lund shows us Viggiani as Pietro sharpening his pocket-knife on a metal rod. O’Malley, who will play McFadden, begins plucking an untuned string of an autoharp as an accompaniment to the scraping sound. Then in the distance but coming closer we hear what sounds like someone filing an axe. Mongillo as Angelina enters from behind us dragging an axe along an asphalt pathway. For those who know the story, Lund has already given us an aural introduction to the characters’ conflicts.

Lund places Mongillo in a circle of rope lying upon the grass with Viggiani and O’Malley equidistant from her. The rope symbolizes both Angelina’s death by hanging if found guilty and her entrapment. Indeed, Angelina long believed while Pietro was alive that she would only find peace in death.

The cast do not wear masks or physically distance, but under Lund’s direction any actual touching of Mongillo is rare. Because of its rarity and because of the rules of the pandemic we live under, any touching of Mongillo comes as even more of a shock. It is no surprise that the character who most often violates Angelina’s space is Pietro. His threatening of her with his knife is truly frightening.

Mongillo plays only the role of Angelina while Viggiani and O’Malley play at least four roles each. Mongillo gives a magnetic performance as Angelina. Speaking English with a heavy Italian accent, Mongillo gives us a young woman so used to mental and physical distress that she struggles to believe in the hope that her attorney holds out for her. Yet, in Angelina’s refusal to plead insanity and in her concern for the future of her children, Mongillo reveals the strong, unwavering moral core of this seeming frail woman that completely wins us over to her cause.

Except for Angelina’s oldest child, Emilia, Viggiani play primarily the negative male characters of the story – Pietro, the judge Byron Moffatt Britton and the the crown attorney Edmund Meredith. Viggiani’s Pietro is fear-inducing from the start, his warped personality like a bomb that could explode at any time. Viggiani as Pietro projects massive physical power coupled dangerously with irresponsibility and misogyny. Viggiani clearly shows that Pietro regards Angelina simply as an object so that his transition from jealousy over possessing her to desiring that other men possess her for money becomes a beleivable leap.

As Britton and Meredith, Viggiani handily brings out their smug Anglocentricity that looks on Italians as a lower species of human being. Her Britton contrasts with excitable Meredith in his coldness and barely disguised disgust for the accused.

O’Malley plays Angelina’s younger child Michaele as well as her attorney McFadden and her British lodger. As McFadden, O’Malley wonderfully demonstrates how the lawyer gradually moves from feeling completely out of his depth to confidence in the justice of his goal of freeing Angelina. O’Malley shows in McFadden’s language and behaviour how the more he listens to Angelina’s story of abuse the more he is stirred to vindicate her action.

As Angelina’s British lodger, O’Malley has the character undergo a similar process from moral outrage at Pietro’s behaviour to sympathy and finally love for the abused woman. We see that O’Malley’s playing of this role is key to suggesting to us the happier life Angelina could have had fate not linked her with Pietro.

Weatherley begins the play in 1911 with Angelina’s trial. Since McFadden says he needs to know about her past, Angelina’s narration of former events is presented as a series of flashbacks. This technique requires Viggiani and O’Malley to shift constantly  and instantly from one role to another, a feat both actors accomplish effortlessly. Each seems to melt from role to role giving Angelina’s recollections of the past horrors and present distress a dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, quality that infuses action with both anxiety and urgency.

The success of Whack! proves that the current pandemic has not smothered the desire of players and of audiences for live theatre. All that is needed, as is so evident here, is the total dedication of the performers to the show, safety procedures and the imagination of a troupe like Here For Now to see how theatre can be forcefully presently outside a conventional theatre space. This is a tautly written play and an elegantly simple production that should be seen by the widest audience. One would hope, once it is possible, that the show could go on tour.

For tickets, visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Olivia Viggiani, Fiona Mongillo and Siobhan O’Malley, © 2019; Olivia Viggiani as Pietro and Fiona Mongillo as Angelina, © 2020 Terry Manzo.