Maggie Rose in Lombardy
26 February 2023
Milan’s Franco Parenti Theatre is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, with a raft of cultural events and new shows, one of which, BUS, is derived from interviews with audience members, the first group over 65 and the second under 25. The interviewees recount their past experiences of theatergoing at the Parenti, but also in general, and what they think theatre might look like in the future.
Another show in what is a busy season is Giovanni Testori’s La Maria Brasca, a revival from the theatre’s vast repertoire. Written in 1959, as part of a cycle called, “The Secrets of Milan”, this tragicomedy opened the following year at the Piccolo Teatro in a production directed by Mario Missiroli, with well-known Milanese actress Franca Valeri playing Maria Brasca.
In 1992 Andrée Ruth Shammah, founder and artistic director of the Franco Parenti theatre, directed the play, with Adriana Asti in the lead, and this year she returns to it. In a press conference, Shammah underlined the close and long professional relationship Testori enjoyed with her and the Franco Parenti theatre, finding there a creative energy that supported his artistic output.
Testori (1923-1993) was a multifaceted figure: a playwright and also an art critic, journalist and painter, born in Novate Milanese, a small town in the hinterland of Milan. La Maria Brasca is set in 1950s Lombardy at a time when the economic boom was at its zenith even if it would seem to have brought few financial rewards to Testori’s characters.
Photo credit: Lorenzo Barbieri.
The action develops on a two-tiered stage – on the upper level a tidy, but very basic 1950s kitchen, with adjacent Maria’s tiny box room and beyond that a toilet, representative of the crammed living quarters of Maria’s family. On the lower level, a grey brick wall looms large; on the left-hand side, some leafless branches can be seen peeping out from a hidey-hole where Maria and her lover Romeo, have sex.
The set therefore represents the double life Maria leads, inside and outside the home. The play opens in the kitchen where this beautiful, single, working-class girl (superbly played by Marina Rocco) is arguing with her married sister, Enrica. Unlike the latter, Maria refuses to listen to Enrica’s advice to conform to society’s rules; she is determined she will live her life freely and go with the men she chooses to. (“When I have an affair with somebody I don’t hide it.”) Maria boldly challenges her brother-in-law, too, who is cheating on her sister, indulging in multiple extra-marital affairs, while Enrica looks after the house and children. The sister expresses her absolute disgust for her husband, but stays with him just the same. Her deep dissatisfaction shows itself in the lethargic way she moves and speaks, movingly conveyed by actor Mariella Valentini.
It is a shame that the husband (played by Filippo Lai) is little more than a stereotype, preventing the possibility of a more interesting marital relationship. A turning point in Maria’s life comes when she falls in love with Romeo (played by Luca Sandri), a fellow factory worker and some years her junior. The highly charged chemistry between the two runs high in Act One, as they meet in the desolate landscape of the lower stage. Instead when Maria finds out Romeo is cheating on her, in Act Two she makes the brave and highly unusual decision to reveal his betrayal in plain sight of the local community in the town square. As she swoops to her revenge, she declares, “I’ll behave like a tiger”.
Interestingly, this public shaming happens offstage so we hear about it in a series of monologues in which Maria invites us to interpret her actions and people’s reactions from her point of view. She twice comes into the audience, pretending that an audience member is Giuseppa, her close friend and the women with whom Romeo is two-timing her. Maria taunts her rival, but makes it clear she won’t be beaten. As she confidently, almost teasingly, proposes to Romeo, she makes it clear she will marry him, but only on her own terms, as equals and free from the hypocrisy so widespread at the time.
In 1960 Testori’s La Maria Brasca chimed loud in a country where the double standard between men and women still prevailed, but some women, like Maria, albeit a decade before the feminist movement, chose to rebel. Andrée Ruth Shammah’s beautiful production sensitively blends the tragic and comic elements while contrasting the two sisters’ very different destinies, meaning that the play still represents a clarion call to women, reminding them never to forget to strive for a full life, marked by self-determination.