’Working on a Special Day’ :: Sex & Politics in Mussolini’s Rome
It’s May 8, 1938: a good day for thousands of citizens to pack the streets and stir up trouble, while two strange bedfellows work things out in an otherwise deserted apartment building.
The event that has a firm grip on most of Rome? Hitler is coming to visit Mussolini, and, after the power summit meet and greet, there’ll be a huge celebration.
Not everybody is buying into Italy’s rising tide of fascism, though.
A put-upon housewife, under the thumb of her family, and a soon-to-be-deported radio broadcaster, under suspicion by the authorities, are happy to let the parade pass them by-but are not consigned to sitting alone in a room.
So as their fellow countrymen spend the day cheering on two leaders responsible for the oppression of millions, one man and one woman (both oppressed in their own right) will meet, argue, form an unlikely alliance and make love. That the man is a closeted homosexual makes their union all the more powerful and unexpected.
And so goes the 1977 Italian film "Una giornata particolare" (aka, "A Special Day"). How that story will play out on the New York stage is, to put it mildly, open to interpretation.
"Doing an English-language adaptation of an Italian piece when we ourselves are Mexican," noted actors Ana Graham and Antonia Vega in a joint statement, "would seem rather odd if not for the fact that theatre is all about imagination. Let’s pretend we are Italians. Let’s pretend the theatre is an apartment building in Rome. Let’s pretend it’s 1938, Mussolini is in power and Hitler is visiting today. Let’s pretend we are happy about it. Then, let us put some questions into your mind: Is fascism over? Is it a political regime or a state of mind?"
Graham and Vega, who play the roles originated on film by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, are the lone actors on stage in "Working on a Special Day." The two members of Mexico City’s Por Piedad Teatro, who are now permanently repping the company here in Manhattan, collaborated with Danya Taymor to translate Gigliola Fantoni’s stage adaptation of the screenplay.
"We chose the piece," explains Vega, "in part because it could be done by two actors. The part of the company that was moving to New York, we knew this piece because it had been staged in Mexico. It [the original production] amazed us. It showed how magical a piece of theater can be, in the staging...but at the same time, it contains the essence of theater: characters in conflict."
Also in the service of keeping it real, and simple (and magical), Vega notes that the play’s small, insular world starts with little more than the two characters, a table and a black wall. As their relationship progresses, "We use a piece of chalk to create the universe in which we live. We start drawing, for instance, and now there’s a window."
Asked for his thoughts on the familiar dynamic of a straight woman and a gay man bonding, Vega dispels the notion of any wacky "Will & Grace" shenanigans.
"This is not a normal friendship," he asserts. "She falls in love with him and doesn’t know he’s gay until later on in the story. In their affair, we explore this idea of what refrains you from getting what you want. He wants to be [sexually, politically] free. She wants to be taken seriously. And in him, she finds this possibility, because he’s caring and nice to her."
With the backdrop of Hitler’s visit-and the looming presence of fascist politics-Vega notes that the piece could be interpreted as more of "a political play. But it’s more of a love story between a gay bachelor and a housewife, both in conflict with themselves. My character knows what’s right and wrong, but cannot be himself. Ana’s character doesn’t have a life of her own. She lives for others."
The two had more on their minds than the troubles of two people, when first approaching the work. Vega recalls how, during the translation process, "Ana and I were able to see that this was universal. This is a piece about a government that is in the wrong, that is oppressing. There’s plenty of that around the world," he says, noting that despite how far certain cultures have come, there are still an astounding number of "people who cannot be who they are. They face judgment and rejection-by society and, sometimes, by themselves."
Everyone, Vega maintains, is "either an oppressor or has been oppressed at some time."
"Working on A Special Day" runs through Feb. 10, Tue -Thurs @7:15, Fri & Sat @8:15, Sat @ 2:15, and Sun @ 3:15. At 59 E. 59 St. (between Park and Madison Avenues). For tickets ($35); PlayCo and 59E59 Membership prices are available, as are $5 Student Rush tickets), purchased online through www.playco.org and www.59E59.org, by phone through Ticket Central at 212-279-4200, and in-person at the 59E59 Theaters box office.