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Barrington Stage's 'Working on a Special Day' indeed works as a special play

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'Working on a Special Day' at Barrington Stage Company

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As Ana Graham and Antonio Vega, the two cast members of the current production at the Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage, introduce themselves to the audience immediately before they begin changing into their costumes right before our eyes, they remark that indeed it is a special day, because we have turned out to see them perform and the two of them are deeply are honored to have been invited to the Pittsfield theater company. And as they put on their stage clothing, they casually asked the audience for recommendations as to what to do locally on their upcoming day off.

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With such an amiable and sincere prelude to the 75-minute intermissionless production which opened on Sunday, June 22, it’s hard not to favorably disposed to the two actors throughout their performance of “Working on a Special Day,” a play based on an Italian film that starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni called “A Special Day.” But even without such an introduction, the two actors create such sympathetic characters in a unique and vividly theatrical environment that you can’t help being moved by the story and experiencing an emotional attachment to the two people we meet on stage.

Graham and Vega, along with Danya Taymor, are credited with translating a stage adaptation by Gigliola Fantoni which was based on the original movie script written by Ruggero Maccari and Ettore Scola, who also directed the film. Though Graham and Vega are also listed as the directors of the production, the original staging concept is credited to Laura Amela and Daniel Gimenez Cacho, two Mexican actors and directors.

And what a fascinating concept this is! Using a bare minimum of props and furniture on a set composed entirely of chalkboard walls and floor with two doors leading to the back of the stage, the two actors will transform the stage into a Roman apartment house circa 1938. As their characters need to answer a telephone, open a window, adjust a birdcage or hang up a hat and jacket, they will simply take out a piece of chalk and draw the prop on the wall. It’s an amusing conceit that adds yet an additional element of humor to a story that is ultimately a life-affirming study of a chance encounter between two frustrated and lonely individuals who discover a surprising connection that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

The concept deliberately stirs the audience into using our imaginations, helped along by the actors’ simulation of Italian accents and the historical references to this particular day in 1938, when Hitler is scheduled to visit Rome for the first time to meet with his ally, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce himself. Almost all of Rome is expected to be in attendance, but two people who are neighbors but have never met have remained behind. Antonietta is an overworked, unappreciated housewife and the mother of six children who launders, cooks and cleans all day, with only the family’s parrot, Rosamunde, as a companion. Her entire family, including her boorish husband, have gone off to see the two dictators on what they anticipate will be a day that will live in history. When Antonietta’s parrot accidentally escapes from its cage, she gets some help from a neighbor who lives across the building’s courtyard, Gabriele, who has been recently fired from his job as a radio announcer because of suspicions that he is a “pervert,” meaning “gay.”

As is to be expected from two such wary personalities, their acquaintance takes various turns and tumbles, as Antonietta initially suspects Gabriele’s intentions and he, having been hiding out in a friend’s apartment for several weeks while facing some sort of exile from the city, yearns for some sort of contact, particularly as many of his close friends and probably lovers have been incarcerated. Even though they go their separate ways at several points during the play, they keep wandering back to each other, with Antonietta ultimately enjoying the company of a man who, in contrast to the stereotypical Italian male, treats her with sensitivity and respect, and Gabriele recognizing a kindred spirit who feels alienated and apart from the society around her.

Graham, who is the artistic producer and founder of Por Piedad Teatro in Mexico City, where this work originated, and Vega, who has served as that company’s Artistic Director since 2009, have created an evening full of ingenious theatrical moments, such as memorable scene on the apartment building’s roof, where the two actors string several clotheslines across the stage where Antonietta has hung her all white laundry. Vega also draws a series of footsteps on the floor of the set, which he uses to learn the rumba eventually drawing his reluctant new friend into a quick lesson.

They use chalk drawings to represent windows in their respective apartments, which actually occupy the same stage space, easily drawing another extended pane when the window is open, then erasing that part of the drawing when the window is supposed to be closed. Gabriele will, at one point, cook dinner for his new friend, using a mixture of real props, a frying pan for example, and chalked items, as when he mimes adding salt and pepper from shakers he has drawn on the walls.

In addition, Graham and Vega do a majority of the sound effects for the show, whether it be buzzing for doorbells (which they will then outline on the door frame), squawking for the parrot, chattering away for the various members of Antonietta’s brood, ringing for the telephone, or imitating the sound of a coffee grinder. At one point they even step out of character and acknowledge each other, to make sure everything is all right, and proceed to act as stage hands to take down the clothes lines.

Also quite clever is how the production chooses to depict the characters going up and down the stairs. One or the other of the actors will appear to be running in the space at the rear of the stage, back and forth numerous times, to represent going down three flights of stairs to the lobby and then up three flights to reach the apartment on the other side. As a result, the play is endlessly fascinating.

Both Graham and Vega do remarkable jobs depicting the pain and grief that lies just below each character’s surface. Graham’s Antonietta comes off as thoroughly exhausted and frustrated, yet capable of maintaining a positive façade for the benefit of her husband and family. She is initially resentful of Gabriele’s attempts to get her to laugh, which include unexpectedly enveloping her in one of her large sheets from the clothes line. It is clear, too, that Gabriele’s behavior is designed to help him forget about what he may be facing in the near future, as indicated in a series of furtive phone calls with some unknown friends who are worried about his welfare and what may be happening. After all, when we first meet Gabriele, he is seen packing and then playing with a handgun that he eventually points at his own head. It is only because of Antonietta’s buzzing at his door, looking for Rosamunde, that brings him out of this depressed stupor.

“Working on a Special Day” is thrilling theater, the type that is both intellectually stimulating and charming at the same time. The two actors have performed the piece around the world in collaboration with New York’s The Play Company, which is dedicated to advancing a dynamic global experience of contemporary theatre. Julianne Boyd, the Artistic Director of Barrington Stage, is to be commended for bringing this play to the Berkshires where it can be appreciated and enjoyed by the area’s theatrically savvy audiences.

Gabriel Pascale, a prominent Mexican set and lighting designer and producer, is credited with the original lighting, which has been adapted for touring purposes by Caroline Jiminez. Somehow, even with blackboards serving as windows, one does feel as if light is streaming into Antonietta’s apartment and Gabriele’s is darker, as if more windows and blinds are closed and any lamps are off. It may just have been this reviewer’s stimulated imagination or the expert work of the cast, but that seemed to be the effect for me. And speaking of lighting, in Antonietta’s apartment there is an overhead lamp that Gabriele kindly repairs, though as you might have suspected from this review, it is also a chalk representation.

Pascal is also responsible for the set design, which appears quite modest at first, but which the cast transforms into several quite intimate spaces. Graham herself is responsible for the costume design, which accounts for Antonietta’s very Italianate mix of housecoat, apron, and work dress, and for Gabriele’s tasteful jacket, hat and suspendered pants. Rodrigo Espinosa designed the sound and some gentle underscoring which adds to the play’s overall mood.

A program note from the “directors” stresses the universal aspects of “an English stage adaptation of the Italian film performed by Mexican actors! This might seem rather odd if not for the fact that theater is all about imagination. Now let’s pretend we are Italians. Let’s pretend this theater is an apartment building in Rome.” Under the guidance of Graham and Vega none of this is a stretch at all. We are in good hands from the very start and gladly accompanying these theater innovators on this very moving journey.

“Working on Special Day” runs through July 6 on the St. Germain Stage at the Barrington Stage Company. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.

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