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Zastrozzi

Written by George F. Walker

Directed by Jennifer Tarver

Starring Rick Roberts

and Sarah Orenstein

***½

Back in 1977, when most Canadian playwrights were writing about the country's history and people in a flurry of nationalism, George F. Walker, bless him, was writing about the swashbuckling "master criminal of all Europe" seeking revenge for the death of his mother at the hands of a lunatic poet.

Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline, Walker's philosophical cartoon about vengeance and other maniacal missions that give meaning to life, is getting a revival at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in a production perfect enough that only the zany script's most irredeemable faults show through.

The play is set in Europe - "probably Italy" read the stage directions - in the year 1893. But really it takes place in a nebulous fantasy world. Tenuously based on Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1810 novel of the same name, it feels more like The Dark Knight, if Batman were the bad guy and The Joker were the good guy, and it had a sense of humour about itself.

Played by Rick Roberts, Zastrozzi has finally tracked down his arch-nemesis Verezzi (Andrew Shaver), an aristocratic artist and religious fanatic who has evaded his capture for three years thanks to the help of a mysterious ex-priest named Victor (John Vickery).

Having cornered him, Zastrozzi enlists his gypsy lover Matilda (Sarah Orenstein) in a poetic and mad plot to wipe that goofy, God-fearing grin off his face for good. But after encountering a beautiful young virgin named Julia (Amanda Lisman), Zastrozzi's budding existential crisis erupts into full bloom. Can revenge on an insane man mean anything?

The plot is not necessarily the most coherent, and the script, though consistently witty, is not tethered enough to its internal reality.

Walker's lack of confidence in his conceit sometimes seeps through when characters confess they are not sure what they are saying.

But there's enough dark philosophical fun to keep your attention rapt, and these colourful comic-book characters are given wonderful, consistent performances kept to the same stylistic plane by director Jennifer Tarver.

Shaver, who has made waves in Montreal with indie theatre companies SaBooge and SideMart Theatrical Grocery, is the most daring of the cast. His Verezzi is wildly physical and very funny, almost making it seem as if Walker was parodying Peter Shaffer's portrait of Mozart in Amadeus two years before that play was written. His Verezzi has all of that character's childishness and buffoonery, but none of the genius.

Vickery is in top form as Victor, making a compelling case that he is the real hero of the show. (I'm beginning to understand why Des McAnuff is so devoted to him.) Zastrozzi's henchpeople - Orenstein as a whip-wielding Matilda and Oliver Becker as a brutish Bernardo - are both superb.

Lisman, meanwhile, contributes a successful send-up of virtuous virginity (as she does in Cyrano de Bergerac). Her psychological deflowering by Zastrozzi is the second hottest non-physical sex scene this year at Stratford. (The first being between Masha and Vershinin in Martha Henry's memorable production of Three Sisters.)

As for Roberts, he is remarkably restrained given the insanity of his character. His underplaying of the comedy and intensification of Zastrozzi's inner struggle with his crumbling, self-contradicting ideology lends weight to a show that could be easily dismissed as camp.

"You are looking at Zastrozzi," goes the master criminal of all Europe's opening line. "But that means very little. What means much more is that Zastrozzi is looking at you. Don't make a sound. Breathe quietly."

It's a testament to Roberts's performance that the audience took this command a little too seriously. In fact, it took an improvised gesture by Shaver - in character as Verezzi, swatting at a fly that had snuck into the theatre - halfway through the first act to give them licence to loosen up and laugh.

This is partly the fault of Tarver, whose direction is so precise and detailed, with every scene change choreographed down to an inch of its life, that it almost threatens to pass out from lack of oxygen. A wee more breathing room and this production will fully soar.

Zastrozzi runs at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Oct. 3.