Power, politics & poison in the wickedly funny, sexy, irreverent Bella Donna

Françoise Balthazar, Paul Hopkins & Chelsea Russell. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

The Bella Donna Artists Collective opened a new, revised production of David Copelin’s Bella Donna, directed by Anita La Selva, to a sold out house at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace last night. Examining the political intrigue during the latter part of Lucrezia Borgia’s life through a 21st century lens, the wicked funny, sexy and irreverent script features all the salacious intrigue and backroom power plays one would expect—focusing on how she, and other women of the day, wielded political and sexual power despite social, legal and religious limitations.

Like her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) before her, Lucrezia (Françoise Balthazar) is the subject of grudging select fear and respect, as well as derision and vicious gossip. She’s onto her third husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrera (Paul Hopkins), who has taken his ward and goddaughter Contessa Angela Di Ghilini (Chelsea Russell) as his mistress. As with all of her marriages, this union was arranged by her father for political gain—in this case, d’Este’s army—and Lucrezia is aware of, and disinterested in, her husband’s extramarital dalliances.

Dewey Stewart & Françoise Balthazar. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

When Alfonso receives word from Rome that Pope Julius II has excommunicated them, and by association all of Ferrera, over allegations of immoral and criminal acts (see rumours about Lucrezia), the house is thrown into a tizzy, prompting Lucrezia to travel to Rome to try to reverse the decision. It is there that she meets Giovanni (Dewey Stewart), a handsome young captain in the Pope’s elite guard. Both in disguise for a masked ball when they meet, Giovanni—who loathes the Borgias, out of duty to the current Pope and based on rumour—doesn’t believe she is who she says she is and the two embark on an affair. We also meet Lucrezia’s friend and confidante Sister Bibiana (Martha Chaves), who acts as an informant for Lucrezia and Alfonso.

Giovanni, on the heels of Lucrezia after she slips away from Rome, is captured and beaten by Alfonso’s henchman Carlo (Michael Giordano); Alfonso has learned of Lucrezia’s tryst with the young captain, and forces her to choose between throat slitting or poison for his execution. An expert with poison and antidotes, she chooses the latter, a decision that offers Giovanni not only the opportunity to live another day, but to meet the lovely young Angela. Like Giovanni, Angela’s derision of Lucrezia melts when she gets to actually know her—and she gets a quick tutorial on Lucrezia’s signature poison, the titular belladonna (deadly nightshade), mixed with snake venom, from Sister Bibiana.

Of course, since we’re talking about the Borgias and the cut-throat politics of that time and place, someone does die and there’s a question about the lineage of someone else—and you’ll have to go see for yourself to find out who. Death, sex, alliances and even devotion to the Catholic Church all hinge on expediency, convenience and political advantage; vengeance is swift and sure, and life such as it is carries on in spite of it all.  Oh—and there’s puppets!

Chelsea Russell & Dewey Stewart. Set & costume design by Jan Venus. Lighting design by Waleed Ansari. Photo by Rene Stakenborg. 

Balthazar gives a stellar performance as the sultry, cunning Lucrezia—a role that seems tailor-made for her, as it showcases her compelling presence and vocal strength. Although technically lower in rank than her husband, Lucrezia is Alfonso’s match in every way: politically savvy, highly intelligent and possessing of an unabashed sexual appetite. Where the two diverge is apparent in Alfonso’s pompous, cruel sense of entitlement, which Hopkins executes with charming yet vicious precision.

Russell is highly entertaining as the bored little rich girl Angela, whose shade-casting ways turn to respect when she actually gets to know Lucrezia; also shouts to her for the puppet show, a hilariously irreverent Punch and Judy-like faceoff between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Julius II (design and construction by Jan Venus). Stewart is a delight as the brash, lusty Giovanni; a one-time true believer of Lucrezia’s rumoured unsavoury reputation, he too becomes a convert when he gets to know her, both biblically and otherwise. Chaves is a treat as the impish, wily Sister Bibiana; like Lucrezia, there’s more than meets the eye to this little nun—and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of those expert snake-handling hands. And Giordano’s strong, mostly silent henchman Carlo adds a gangland-flavoured comic edge.

Poison is often dismissed, mainly by men, as a “woman’s weapon.” But as we see from Sister Bibiana’s chemistry lesson and Lucrezia Borgia’s mastery of it—it involves science, skill and subtlety. And while the use of a plant to kill is perhaps a more velvet glove approach compared to the brute force of cold steel, it gets the job done. After all, one must use what weapons one has at one’s disposal. Underestimate the power of such weapons, and those who wield them, at your peril. Misunderstood, maligned and underestimated, Lucrezia Borgia is a survivor turned thriver, evolving from political bargaining chip to political force in her own right. Just don’t tell the men that.

Bella Donna continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until June 1; performances run Tues-Sat at 8 pm, with matinées on Sundays at 2:30 pm. Get advance tickets online or at the door (PWYC rush tickets available on Tuesdays and Sundays).

 

Advertisements

Fear & loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-female cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross

GlengarryPosterOnline-1 - smallAnd the Mametpalooza continues over at Red Sandcastle Theatre. (I saw Headstrong Collective’s marvelous production of Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum last Saturday.) This time, it’s Jet Girls Productions’ ballsy all-female production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Anita La Selva.

With this world premiere of the gender switched Glengarry Glen Ross, Jet Girls has a very ambitious first production on their hands – and they weren’t permitted to change a word of the script. The result is powerful, thought-provoking, darkly funny and more than a bit jarring.

Joining director La Selva on this journey is a fine ensemble of local female actors (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Saunders (Shelly Levene), Julie Brar (John Williamson and co-founder of Jet Girls), Françoise Balthazar (David Moss), Laurel Paetz (George Aaronow), Marianne Sawchuk (Richard Roma and co-founder of Jet Girls), Rosemary Doyle (James Lingk and A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre) and Robinne Fanfair (Detective Baylen).

With none of the text altered – including character names – and the men replaced with women, the raw and often brutal language of the play comes across as all the more harsh. Violent verbal exchanges highlighted with name-calling and profanity hit harder coming from the mouths of women, but at the same time there is an unsettling naturalism about it. These are women struggling for survival in a merciless, dog eat dog business driven by the mantra “Always Be Closing.” You don’t close, you don’t eat. Slogging through lists of dead leads in hard, changing economic times, the futility and desperation is palpable. Make no mistake, this is no mere cat fight – competition is fierce and it’s the law of the jungle here.

As Shelly “The Machine” Levene, Saunders gives us a compelling and poignant portrait of a salesperson past her prime, an old-school practitioner struggling along the rat race, ravenously desperate to break a losing streak, and avoid falling into despair. Brar does a lovely job with the aloof, pompous young pup Williamson, revealing hints of ruthlessness and entitlement beneath the cool professional exterior. Balthazar gives a riveting performance as Moss; by turns a rampaging bear and snake-like manipulator, there is something of the ticking time bomb in her. Paetz gives nice layers to Aaronow, Moss’s sidekick; mousey in her righteous indignation over the poor state of their leads, and an easy mark for Moss’s machinations – but this mouse wants to roar when she’s backed into a corner. Sawchuk mesmerizes as the slick operator Roma. All sex and charisma, smooth and sharp and the same time, she is a master of language, flirtation and flattery – anything to get what she wants. As Roma’s mark Lingk, Doyle brings a lovely combination of frumpy, gullible naiveté and a devil may care yearning for adventure to this sexually repressed, hen-pecked woman – but is not beyond standing her ground, albeit on shaky legs, when her place in the world becomes threatened. Very nice work from Fanfair as the no-nonsense, unflappable Detective Baylen; while professional in demeanour, she will brook no shenanigans from this group of real estate hustlers during her investigation.

With shouts to costume designer Jan Venus for the sharp, evocative 80s wardrobe.

Fear and loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-lady cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross. Get yourself out to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see this.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs at Red Sandcastle until April 26. For advance tix, call 416-845-9411 or email redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com