The elusive dream to take a trip to Sicily, infinitely planned and postponed, was reignited last night on a trip to the much closer Peak Performances at Montclair State presenting for the first time in the US, Emma Dante’s Le Sorelle Macaluso. The first leg of my journey to Sicily, it was well worth the short trip to New Jersey.
I was rewarded with an hour of the most nuanced direction and the most vibrant acting on the most profound of subjects—death and family—even as the piece came across as the most life-affirming and original I have seen in a long time. Jed Wheeler, the Peak impresario, designated this year of his programming as one dedicated to women artists—not, as he insists because he wanted to lump them together—but because most of the work coming into his veteran sightlines was, indeed, by women.
That said, Emma Dante, who alas could not appear with her company, is a gem among gems and her actors, seven women (who play the sisters) and two men, later additions to a piece originally conceived for all women (the father and a son) are fierce, intelligent, fearless. The sisters convene to mourn the dead, and as wakes must, summon their childhood memories: the harsh father, the angry, manipulative sister, the pushy mother, the eldest caregiver, the youth athlete on his way to success. All of these potentially clichéd icons come fully to searing and individual life, giving lie to some of their most vivid recollections, as the sisters engage with each other and their communal ghosts.
In simple long-sleeved black shirts and pants the sisters march in formation to open the piece, almost Mussolini-esque in their presentation, but this bleak regiment soon gives way to a septet with colorful slips and ultimately bathing suits as the characters strip down to their very essences. A cast member in the post performance Q and A said simply that Dante wanted to accentuate the fact that it is mourners who wear black---that the dead are in fact captured in the midst of life, of color.
The cast speaks Sicilian, a dialect I could not easily grasp even though I understand Italian, but the supertitles were elegant and not at all distracting. The mere mention of Sicily brings colorful baggage (the Corrleones, Pirandello, the Greek influence, the refugees et al) but Dante instead imbues the work with surprising layers through her method of physical and emotional improvisation, which with aching specificity, wrenches our hearts.
It stood in unexpected weekend juxtaposition with Call Me By Your Name, a cool, beautiful film set in the very north of Italy about a gay love affair made from a James Ivory script by Luca Guadagnino, a master of surfaces, of masking emotion, of hidden agendas. I much preferred the Sorelle and their undisguised grasp of life and each other.
It is a shame that Peak is not in our NYC laps, one must take a bus, but so what. Wheeler has drafted a season that is barely midway through and I could not recommend more highly keeping up with his keen eye.
Photos: Marina Levitskaya for Peak Performances.