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Review: Napoli Milionaria! reintroduces Italian giant Eduardo de Filippo to the Stratford Festival

Michael Blake as Errico and Brigit Wilson as Amalia in Napoli Milionaria!

David Hou/Stratford Festival

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With his final opening of the season, Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino has returned to the work of the playwright with whom he made his directing debut at the festival back in 1997: Eduardo de Filippo.

Between then and now, de Filippo – a giant of Italian theatre, who lived from 1900 to 1980 – has faded in popularity in the English-speaking world. After the Second World War, his plays were fairly regularly performed in England – the National Theatre of Great Britain being his champion, great stage actors from Laurence Olivier to Judi Dench starring in his plays in London.

This major Stratford production at the Avon Theatre with a massive 22-person cast comes after a comparative lull and is an opportunity for a new generation to find out about de Filippo.

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Napoli Milionaria! follows the poor Jovine family in Napoli during the Second World War as they first survive under the fascist regime then thrive under American occupation while conflict continues in the north of Italy.

Patriarch Gennaro (Tom McCamus) served in the First World War and has never really been the same since. He now sleeps in his own partitioned-off corner of the living room and is prone to long, rambling, moralizing speeches.

His family doesn’t have the luxury of similar moral rectitude. Amalia (Brigit Wilson), Gennaro’s wife, keeps her children out of poverty by trading on the black market with the help of a man named Errico (Michael Blake), who clearly also has a romantic interest in her.

Later, when Gennaro disappears during the German retreat, Amalia ramps up her business, her daughter Maria Rosaria (Shruti Kothari) gets close with an American GI and her son Amedeo (Johnathan Sousa) starts to dabble in thievery. War may elevate them financially, but it drags them down morally. That’s the point – made perhaps a little too pointedly (and, in the case of Maria Rosaria, in a manner that seems dated).

The tone of Napoli Milionaria! shifts like the Jovines' fortunes – didactic one moment, farcical the next. The first act made me think of Arthur Miller, Michel Tremblay and Bertolt Brecht in quick succession. (Wilson gives a very guarded, somewhat closed performance in the role of Amalia, but there’s something of a quiet and cautious Mother Courage to her.)

That first act culminates in a madly comic scenario worthy of Nikolai Gogol when a reluctant Gennaro must pretend to be a corpse on top of a mattress stuffed with illegal goods to deceive an inspector (an amusing André Sills). Then the bombs start to fall, and we watch to see how long Gennaro will continue to play dead while others are trying to stay alive.

Napoli Milionaria! never quite rises to that delicious level of theatrical wildness again, and neither the tragedy nor the comedy in the subsequent scenes really penetrates deeply in Cimolino’s soft-edged and overly pleasant production. I was only truly moved by Tom Rooney as a well-off man whose trajectory is in the opposite direction of the Jovines'.

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While McCamus gives a complex, soulful performance as Gennaro, there’s something off-putting about how little complexity and soulfulness the rest of his family is allowed. He and his view of the world dominate the proceedings even when he’s offstage. The forgiveness offered at the end for others' wartime mistakes must have seemed quite generous when the play premiered in 1945, but it rings hollow here, as if the playwright had been trying to make us judge the characters earlier only to try to impress us with his magnanimity later.

Of course, it’s difficult to say how Napoli Milionaria! resonates in its original language. Stratford has commissioned a new version from Canadian playwright John Murrell (based on a literal translation by Donato Santeramo) that feels nebulous, rather than richly written.

De Filippo wrote in a Neapolitan dialect, which poses an extra challenge for translators, the way Quebec playwright Tremblay’s use of joual does. A successful production at the National Theatre in 1991 substituted Scouse, but Murrell makes the characters sound lower-class and uneducated in a unsatisfyingly universal way.

If Cimolino’s production ultimately only makes the case for Napoli Milionaria! as an intriguing curiosity rather than a world classic worthy of its exclamation point, regular visitors to the Stratford Festival will nevertheless jump at the opportunity to see an international playwright off their beaten path.

Napoli Milionaria! continues to October 27.

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