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Theatre in Review: Filomena Marturano: Un matrimono a la Caribeña (Repertorio Español)

Zulema Clares, Sandor Juan. Photo: Michael Palma Mir.

Just about any visit to Repertorio Español reveals how many accomplished actors the company has at its command. This time around, the name to note is Zulema Clares as the title character -- a former prostitute, now the long-running official mistress of a well-off businessman. Filomena has for many years endured her second-class status without complaint. Domingo, her lover, is widowed and Filomena is ready to upgrade her status. As the play begins, she is, apparently, on her deathbed, attended by Domingo in addition to her loyal retainer and a local priest. As the space between her breaths becomes longer and longer, she has one final wish: Will Domingo finally -- if only for the last few hours of her existence -- make her his wife?

Overcome, the poor fool agrees, and the priest hastily performs the ceremony, lest Filomena expire before the vow is pronounced. Imagine Domingo's shock when -- only a minute after the deed is done -- his new bride rises up from her bed of pain, standing before him with a look of unalloyed triumph. The moment is, at first, like something from a zombie film -- a towering presence in a white peignoir, seemingly floating above the mattress on which, seconds earlier, she lay in extremis -- before it unleashes an enormous shock laugh. Filomena's mortal illness is a con, a card desperately played in a grab for the respectability so long denied her.

From here on, Clares dominates the proceedings, driving the series of maneuvers that make up the action of the play. Planting herself on a chair, her hair wildly tousled and her legs spread in a provocatively male stance -- nobody messes with her -- she calmly listens to her lover's fury, then casually -- yet precisely -- raises a leg and points a foot in his direction, in this way identifying him as the fool in the room. Later, she rolls out three adult male offspring -- somehow Domingo never knew of them -- purely to confound him, and, driving him closer to the edge, adds that one of them is his son; compounding the insult, she declines to identify the fellow. If all of this seems a little callous, Filomena prosecutes her case with such vigor -- citing her rise from poverty, her willingness to do anything to support her children, and her hunger for respectability -- that one begins to feel that she has been wasted in her career as a mistress. Clearly, she should be, say, helping Italy form its next government.

I mention Italy because the play, originally titled Filumena Marturano, is the work of Eduardo Di Filippo, one of the greatest names in that county's postwar theatre and an indefatigable chronicler of Neapolitan manners and morals. (This play is perhaps best known as the film Marriage Italian Style, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.) This version, by Leyma López, Rafael Sánchez, and Robert Weber Federico, transposes the action to somewhere in the Caribbean, a move that is achieved seamlessly, as both cultures are dominated by the Roman Catholic ideas about marriage and sex that undergird the plot; both are ripe for the comedy of an importunate woman who deftly turns the tables on her selfish lover.

And make no mistake, there are laughs to be had as Filomena announces her latest stratagem, blithely driving Domingo's blood pressure to new heights. Sandor Juan, as Domingo, blows his stack amusingly each time, his tirades marked by the increasing awareness that he is outmatched by the woman he has so thought he dominated. However, don't be surprised if you feel a little worn down by all these shenanigans, a mounting series of squabbles that move in circular fashion. Di Filippo has never quite won over American audiences -- this play has been seen on Broadway twice, as The Best House in Naples, in 1956, and as Filumena, in 1980 (starring Joan Plowright under Laurence Olivier's direction) -- and neither production was a success. Nor was a 1997 Off Broadway staging starring Maria Tucci particularly well-received.

The reason for this lack of acclaim Stateside, I think, is simple: The play never really gives one a reason to want Filumena and Domingo to get together; it begins with a consummate act of deception and continues with increasingly querulous squabbling until the third act, when, suddenly and without adequate explanation, we are meant to feel that they deeply need each other. Maybe, but everything we have seen until this moment has been strictly transactional. Di Filippo's point, about the relative status of married and unmarried women in a male-dominated world, is blunted by the involved plot: The play is neither stylized enough for satire nor likable enough for straight-up romantic farce.

López, who also directed, deploys the cast confidently enough, especially Amneris Morales as Filomena's perpetually anxious housekeeper and Kristal Pou as Filomena's intended replacement in Domingo's bed. The production design, by Federico, appropriately places the action against a series of louvered blinds and floods the stage in tropical colors. Clares is such a strong performer -- give her an aria and she will turn it into a play all by itself -- that you're not likely to be bored. Indeed, she is well worth seeking out, even if she outclasses the play. Filomena Marturano is often fun, but you might find yourself becoming a bit impatient with its cast of indefatigable schemers.--David Barbour

(16 September 2019)

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