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L'Esibizionista (The Exhibitionist).

It has become axiomatic in critical film studies to assign the role of bearer of the gaze to the male and the role of object of the gaze to the female. Following Lacan and Laura Mulvey, such gender assignment of the psychology of the gaze bespeaks the male-dominated nature of the film industry as cultural forum for a male-dominated society. Lina Wertmuller, as perhaps the first female to threaten entry into an otherwise exclusively male canon of film directors, reversed such gender assignment of the gaze in her 1985 film Summer Night, wherein the wealthy female industrialist captures, blind-folds and chains a male terrorist to a bed, dresses him in designer lingerie and subjects him to the scrutiny of closed-circuit television cameras which allow her to police, survey and visually devour him from a safe, controlling distance. Such instinctive understanding of the operation of the psychology of the gaze informs the gender-role inversions in Wertmuller's latest stageplay The ExhibitioniSt as well. Directed by Wertmuller herself, the play tells the story of a bank accountant, Oscar Pettolini (Luca De Filippo), who far from being the bearer of the gaze, achieves his sexual thrills by being an exhibitionist, opening his trenchcoat in classic style to reveal himself to unsuspecting women as they make their way across the city park. One of his victims, a school teacher named Gemma Leonetti (Athina Cenci), remains obsessed by one such incident, so much so, in fact, that she is forced to confront her true identity in life not as repressed spinster but as a "very curious person sex deviant," a pathology she renders in boastful English. Her previous fanaticism for controlling her environment, her disgust at love as a discourse of bestiality rather than sentiment, now transfers itself to an equally fanatical desire to become controlling bearer of the gaze, to play the role of voyeur opposite Oscar's exhibitionist sell Gemma tracks down Oscar, confronts him over coffee and threatens to denounce him unless he allows her to accompany him to watch has exhibitionist escapades. At first scandalized and terrorized by Gemma's request, he must acquiesce. Music which could easily be the Italian counterpart of "While strolling through the park one day" underscores their first outing, but when the climactic moment arrives, Oscar freezes, allowing his new "victim" to beat him to a pulp with a heavy handbag.

Traditional gender roles inverted, Wertmuller's play becomes a study of the controlling woman and the increasingly hysterical male. Much of Wertmuller's filmography, like that of Fellini for whom she had apprenticed as assistant director, has been devoted to diagnosing a crisis in the overblown Mediterranean construction of masculinity, a construction her male characters fall vertiginously short of embodying. Such is certainly the case with the unprepossessing Oscar. De Filippo's Oscar is giddily nervous, a creature on the edge who has sought psychotherapy even before Gemma confronted him. De Filippo uses his face with great plasticity, his elastic body at times caving in on itself as the world overwhelms him, at times clinging rigidly to others with his voice in a high register of pure panic. The comparatively mannish Gemma, replete with Cenci's gruff baritone, decisive mannerisms and gabardine costume, seems downright Alpine in contrast to De Filippo's demonstratively Neapolitan Oscar. As controlling woman, Gemma functions not only as Oscar's alter ego but also as alternative mother. Both Wertmuller's script and Enrico Job's set design (Job is Wertmuller's husband) reveal that despite what male dominance may exist at the societal level homo mediterraneus may very well be a male under siege by matriarchy at the interpersonal level.

Job's set must accommodate the fluid transitions in time and space that result from the passing of the narration from one character to another. Accordingly the set is an open expanse, largely geometric, with trees in silhouette and a path through the park. Set pieces, such as the park bench or the doctor's couch, appear as needed, but by far the most significant aspect of the set is an ominous, cold, metallic multi-story wedge which intrudes into the set from the side. Near the end of act one it opens to spew forth the virtual afterbirth of an apartment Oscar shares with his mother (Giuliana Calandra). This cartoon apartment topples down upon him even as he describes it: window frames, bookcases, chests of drawers, cupboards, armadios, with his mother at the pinnacle, hovering high above him on her rocking chair, calling him "Oscarino" and ordering him about the house. The apartment's entrance onto the stage is repeatedly underscored with horror music, and chiaroscuro lighting is added on the occasion of Gemma's visit to Oscar's mother. In this claustrophobic conglomeration of domestic artifacts, only the bathroom offers Oscar privacy and refuge. Flight to the prostitutes in the park only further serves to diminish him, rendering him the butt of jokes as he attempts to barter a lower tariff because of possible inability to perform.

In part because of her sympathy for her male characters, Wertmuller has functioned as something of a lightning rod for feminist film critics who, for the most part, have been unaware of the extent of the indebtedness of her work to Neapolitan commedia theatrical tradition. Although not written specifically for the De Filippo company, The Exhibitionist certainly could have been, so suited are the performers to their roles and so suited is Wertmuller's text to their archetypal commedia playing. Wertmuller explains her over-the-top propensity for entertaining exaggeration and kitsch, "Telling the story I deform, underline, exasperate: not to falsify, but because to me the 'grotesque' mode of representation seems the shortest distance between . . . the public that goes to see pseudo-pornographic farces and the public that applauds Bunuel and Bergman." The play provides ample opportunity for both physical and verbal lazzi. For her part, Gemma pursues a cat-and-mouse chase of Oscar from behind one tree to another in the park. During his changes of direction she repeatedly falls into him in her attempt to position herself in a vantage point from which to watch but not disrupt his exhibitionism. In a hysterical state Oscar takes refuge from Gemma at Doctor Alvaro Cinquetti's (Mario Scarpetta), causing himself, Cinquetti, and Cinquetti's oversexed assistant Jessica (Eleonora Vanni) to topple headlong over the sofa in a menage-a-trois at Gemma's feet. Perhaps the most noteworthy bit of physical business in the play, however, occurs when Oscar dresses for one of his outings: shirt and tie cut off above the waist, and lower pant legs held up with elastic at the knee.

In like manner Wertmuller's dialogue eschews realism in favor of a verbal lazzi which ranges from short interchanges delivered with machine-gun like speed by the actors to the long speeches in which her characters futilely attempt to negotiate their perturbed psyches with an effluvium of words. Cinquetti's opening monologue sets the tone for the play as his simple-minded Freudianism descends into farcical absurdity. In this sequence he describes a man who accidentally discovers the cure for his impotence by achieving orgasm while witnessing a train wreck. Such long speeches reveal the various characters' need to become the guiding consciousness that organizes the dramatic action and hence their world. The monologue in which Gemma realizes that she is not frigid but perverse, Oscar's description of panic at her pursuit, and Cinquetti's pedantic-comic diatribes are all prime examples. Often these speeches serve to narrate the action, providing the subtext in which an otherwise superficially banal dialogue passage can reverberate with wordplay and double entendre. Such narration also provides opportunities for physical lazzi by sometimes freezing the action into curious tableaux, as when Cinquetti narrates Gemma's and Oscar's first outing together. Throughout their relationship, Cinquetti's tale of a train wreck as a cure for impotence has aptly served Wertmuller as metaphor for the male-female interaction that follows, the constitution of what she calls "an impossible couple."

Although known as a film director, Wertmuller actually began her career in theatre and claims she would just as soon conclude her professional life doing Neapolitan puppet theatre in her old age. Wertmuller's third stageplay, The Exhibitionist has proved so successful with both critics and audiences that it will be revived this fall for a run throughout the Italian peninsula for the 1994-95 theatrical season.

WILLIAM VAN WATSON Washington University in St. Louis
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Title Annotation:Gay & Lesbian Queeries; Teatro Nazionale, Rome, Italy
Author:Van Watson, William
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:1382
Previous Article:Dead Funny.
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