“Mambo Italiano” brings laughter, message of tolerance to stage

To put it one way, being gay and Italian is a “star-crossed” situation. Or to quote Angelo Barberini, the protagonist of “Mambo Italiano, “ ... being gay and Italian is a fate worse than . . . actually, there is no fate worse than being gay and Italian. ... ”

On Saturday, August 1, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, August 2, at 4 p.m., audiences can get a closer look at Angelo’s dilemma when “Mambo Italiano” will be staged in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall on the Rhode Island College campus.

If “star-crossed” brings to mind another story about young Italians who faced parental disapproval over their choice of life partners, think again. The lessons “Mambo Italiano” teaches are laced with a good dose of laughter. While the play handles controversial subject matter, it does so in the spirit of the film “The Birdcage” or the television show “Will and Grace.”

The drama of “Mambo Italiano” begins when Angelo, a gay Montreal playwright and aspiring sitcom writer, announces to his family that he is gay. The deeply traditional parents of both Angelo and his lover, Nino, are shocked and contrive to “cure” their sons of their homosexuality by setting them up with some nice Italian girls.

The matchmaking efforts, however, backfire; and when Angelo’s parents host a dinner party to introduce their son to a nice Italian girl, everything seems to go wrong and only results in Angelo’s further questioning why his parents cannot accept his homosexuality.

To complicate matters, Nino turns out to be a seriously conflicted bisexual.

“Mambo Italiano” was created by Montrealer Steve Galluccio, who also writes sitcoms for Canadian TV.

Before entering the mainstage world, Galluccio earned a reputation as one of the brighter lights of Montreal’s gonzo theatre movement. Gonzo theatre, named for Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, was a type of low-budget, camp comedy that referenced TV shows and pop culture in general.

Although Galluccio wrote “Mambo” in English, the play first became a hit in French, when Michel Tremblay, a leading figure in Canadian theatre, translated the play for Montreal’s La Compagnie Jean-Duceppe, which staged it in 2000.

The play’s popularity led to an English production at the city’s Centaur Theatre in 2001, where it broke box office records. Then, in 2003, it was turned into a film with Paul Sorvino as Angelo’s father.

Jamie Taylor
“Mambo” found its way to RIC when theatre professor Jamie Taylor, who is directing the production, was researching material for a seminar in diverse alternate theatre, which covers such areas as black, Latino and gay theatre.

“Students in the class responded well to the play,” Taylor said, and when he viewed the movie version, he found it “hysterical” and decided that he would stage the play at the college.

The Remembering Democracy series, which Taylor has been running for several summers, seemed the perfect vehicle as it emphasizes such nontraditional themes as diversity and gay issues. Past productions have included “The Meeting,” a play dramatizing a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and “Dutchman,” a seminal work in African American theatre by Amiri Baraka.

Although “Mambo” was originally set in Montreal, Taylor is taking some liberties with the script and is moving the action to Providence in order to relate it more closely to the Italian population in Rhode Island.

For Taylor, “Mambo” involves more than Angelo’s coming out. “It’s a mixture of old and young that is the crux of the play,” he noted. “It shows the conflict of changing times.”

“The play has so many interesting characters,” he continued, “like Anna, Angelo’s sister, who is caught in her own dilemma of escaping the family, as she is afraid to go out into the world.

“The parents are inspiring as well. They have to find a way to reconcile themselves with their child’s being gay since they don’t want to lose his love.”

In Taylor’s view, the defining moment in the play comes when Angelo’s parents finally accept him for who he is, in a scene that oddly enough takes place in church, with the entire family converging at a confessional, where Angelo, concealed in the priest’s spot, listens to his mother’s confession, in which she shows contrition over not accepting her son.

The process of directing “Mambo Italiano” has held a few lessons for Taylor, too.

“It has opened my eyes,” he admits. “People make choices. We may not always understand, but especially as family, we still need to exhibit tolerance so that the person does not feel ostracized and alienated.

“The person may already feel ostracized in society so it is important to have support and acceptance from the family.”

The cast of “Mambo Italiano” comprises both current students and alumni. The alumni actors include Jimmy Calitri as Angelo’s lover Nino, Janette Gregorian as the mother; Bonnie Griffin as Lina (Nino’s mother) and Nicole Gemma as Anna. Students in the production are Adriano Cabral as Angelo, Nicholas Thibeault as the father and Kristina Drager as Pina (Nino’s other love interest).

It is fitting that this production brings together actors old and new to the college. After all, “Mambo Italiano” is a play all about strengthening family bonds.

Tickets for “Mambo Italiano” are $10 and are available through the Roberts Hall Box Office. For more information, call (401) 456-8144.