Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline
nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
October 8, 2005
The first incarnation of the charismatic arch-villain Zastrozzi came from Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1810 in the famed Romance poet’s first published novel. Canadian playwright George F. Walker apparently never read the novel, only a description in a biography of Shelley, so his contemporary play Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline can’t really be called an adaptation. It’s a verbose play—Zastrozzi’s existential soliloquies seem to go on forever—but otherwise a darkly fun, perversely smart piece of very theatrical theatre, and I can see where it could gain cult status, if it has not already. It also presents interesting technical challenges to mount, and this production from The 7th Sign now at the ArcLight Theater gives it a most commendable shot, although not always successful.
Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline is a mean-spirited social satire about moral and spiritual accountability. It’s a cornucopia of the Grand Guignol, of operatic emotional extremes to the point of camp, gratuitous swordfights, and references to kinky, violent sex with rape as titillation (one woman even threatens to rape another woman). It’s trashy and exploitative, but intelligently philosophical and has very pretty language—a lot like most of what Shakespeare wrote, but more accessible to 21st century sensibilities. The story almost doesn’t matter; it’s about obsession. As Zastrozzi pontificates to the followers who look to him for their lives’ validation, “Life is a series of totally arbitrary and often meaningless events.”
Zastrozzi is a 19th-century world-class master criminal, murderer, robber, rapist, and zealous atheist whose greatest conceit is that he has never been caught. In the last few years, however, his new fixation has become revenge, of finding and killing a man named Verezzi who horribly murdered Zastrozzi’s mother. Verezzi seems always to mysteriously elude Zastrozzi and his two minions, the murderous but unimaginative Bernardo, and Matilda, Zastrozzi’s sultry, sociopathic mistress. Then we meet Verezzi, a man apparently so traumatized by his own crime of passion that his descent into madness has left him an overgrown baby with an adult libido and a delusion that he is a Messiah with a host of spiritual followers. He’s a complete idiot, albeit a beatifically happy one. His survival is due only to the resourcefulness of his harried servant, Victor, a symmetry obsessed ex-priest who once promised Verezzi’s father to protect him and now somehow manages to stay one step ahead of Zastrozzi. But Zastrozzi finally tracks clueless Verezzi to a small European mountain hamlet where they both fall madly in love with the beautiful and pure but pragmatic Julia. Then the fun really begins and the body count rises.
The 7th Sign’s production, directed by Adam Parrish, is technically very good-looking. The simple but elegant set, designed by Brian Cote, is comprised of steps that look like they are made of stone, and a giant window as the backdrop gives the feeling of being in an ancient fortress. The period costumes by Katja Andreiev are just, just beautiful.
The actors, most of them recent NYU Tisch School of the Arts grads and just a bit too young to truly make the most of this sophisticated play, are, nonetheless, also gorgeous and distinctive-looking, especially Danny Deferrari as a Rasputin-like Zastrozzi and Orion Taraban as the ghoul Bernardo. My favorite performances come from Matt Harrington as wise, tormented “ordinary man” Victor, and Elliotte Crowell as innocent but shrewd Julia. Both play characters written less over-the-top, perhaps, than the others, and manage to be more grounded and real against the obvious caricatures. Handsome, baby-faced Charlie Wilson quite looks the part of harmless, pathetically confused Verezzi, but he isn’t given much more to do here apart from bounce around like a puppy grown too large for his kennel. Emily Stern is certainly dangerously beautiful as evil maneater Matilda, and her voice is low and sexy. Yet, many of her lines tended to be delivered in a Lauren Bacall-esque monotone, and I sometimes struggled to hear her.
Unfortunately, what really keeps this production from transcending to the level it deserves to be at are the fights' staging and the sex scenes. The moments of erotic passion are, shall we say, less than committed in intensity. The swordfights themselves are nicely choreographed by KC Stage, but there are far too many of them, and they go on far too long. Ah, well, boys with long, sharp, pointy objects will, of course, be boys. A noticeable problem, though, comes in the staging when characters must drop and die, or when one character slugs or stabs another. When, for instance, Zastrozzi kills someone after a lengthy swordfight, his downstage victim (almost on top of the audience) is very visibly breathing with exertion after being pronounced stone cold dead. Similarly, when another character gets slapped or punched in the face, the strike is distractingly fake. Finally, there’s the issue of blood. All those bodies on the floor at the end—throats slit, digestive organs gouged out—and there’s no blood or, at least, a few entrails? This is no time to be dainty!
Still, on the whole, I was entertained by Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline, and I consider that The 7th Sign offered me a respectable first introduction to the intriguing work of George F. Walker. It will be interesting to see what other outré works this young, ambitious company chooses to tackle next.