JUNE 2019 | Volume 180
Photo by Jason Benson
by George F. Walker
Star & Moon Productions
The Cultch Culture Lab
George F. Walker’s Zastrozzi is one of the best and strangest plays to come out of the Canadian theatrical ferment of the 1970s. Unique among Canadian playwrights, Walker created darkly surreal comic dramas out of the grab bag of pop culture and his own distinctive imagination.
His primary source material for Zastrozzi was a bizarre early 19th century Gothic prose piece by Percy Bysshe Shelley, but that’s hardly relevant because Walker admits he never actually read it. He took Walkeresque liberties in turning it into his own Gothic revenge comedy.
For a few decades the play was one of the most popular in the Canadian repertoire, but no longer. It’s a great pleasure to see this dark, funny play again, here in a stylish independent production featuring very strong acting and sharp direction by Jennifer Copping.
Ostensibly set in an 1893 that feels more like 1593 due to the sword fighting (spectacularly choreographed by Mike Kovac and Ryan Bolton), the plot revolves around the quest of Zastrozzi (Birkett Turton) to revenge his mother’s murder at the hands of deranged painter Verezzi (Massimo Frau). That incident has a complicated backstory but Walker barely fleshes it out.
That’s because plot is the least important element of the play. Walker’s characters and their deadpan language are central. Obsessive, Satanic, philosophical Zastrozzi, “the master criminal of all Europe,” occupies himself by making everyone answerable. Verezzi declares himself a saint, imagining in detail each of his hundreds of followers. Ex-priest Victor (Emmet Lee Stang) has tasked himself with keeping nutty Verezzi from being murdered by Zastrozzi.
Zastrozzi’s sex-partner Matilda (Starlise Waschuk, who also produced the show), Europe’s most accomplished seductress, is as tough as Zastrozzi: “I do not suffer from rapier envy.” But raven-haired Matilda meets her match in blond virgin Julia (Alissa Hansen), who attracts both Zastrozzi and Verezzi along with Zastrozzi’s thuggish servant, Bernardo (Giacomo Baessato).
The revenge-tragedy-style ending finds four of the six strewing the stage as corpses, though we laugh at much of what unfolds. Walker keeps us generically off-balance, never landing for long on the comic or serious ends of the spectrum, subverting the serious stuff with funny bits and vice versa. Only Zastrozzi’s light-hearted references to rape—a leftover from the ‘70s—make us uncomfortable in the wrong way.
Copping’s production mostly captures the Walkeresque essence. Turton’s intense, brooding Zastrozzi commands the stage and Frau’s Verezzi is appropriately hilarious. (He and Stang also manage a rich, convincing kind of weird Italian accent.) Waschuk’s dark sensuality and Hansen’s virginal cool also nicely reflect the play’s yin and yang.
Only Baessato’s Bernardo seems too big, trying too hard for the laughs that should come naturally and unexpectedly, especially near the beginning where Copping’s direction also forces the comedy. Even he settles down as the evening progresses.
Copping adds effective touches to Walker’s spare script: a masked figure holds a mirror before Zastrozzi for his monologues, and other masked characters enact the nightmares he narrates. And she has excellent support from her design team.
Itai Erdal’s lighting is often about as dark as it can get while still allowing us to see the actors’ faces, and Dustin Clark’s spooky, Baroque-ish sound design reinforces the mood on Mariana Munoz’s functional set. Hilary Jardine’s costumes help maintain the historical ambiguity of the setting. I especially loved Zastrozzi’s sexy black outfit. I want that jacket!
A fine production of a great play, this Zastrozzi is one to see.
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