"A single shot, Italian style, bitter and served straight up." The ad for Lucia Frangione's new play, Espresso, reflects the energy and passion pervading the latest work by this young and intense playwright and actress. The play opened in Vancouver last January, in the tiny, avant-garde Pacific Theatre, and was an instant hit.
Frangione's portrait of an Italian Canadian family, based on a true, personal experience of grief, has an authenticity and depth that come straight from the richness of her spirituality and acknowledgement of her cultural roots.
In characters like the Father and Nonna, which in less adept hands could have easily strayed into farcical stereotypes, she avoids the usual trite gags and cheap cliché that so often degrade Italian immigrant families to get the audience to laugh.
Instead, she brings a fresh, realistic and compassionate insight into the lives of people experiencing a complex generational, cultural and spiritual transition; and she makes these people come alive on stage with a passionate, muscular, bravura performance.
On stage, Frangione is an electrifying presence. She metamorphoses, chameleon-like, into a multitude of characters with a twist of the shoulders or a slight tilting of the head. Using a different tone of voice, she becomes the vulnerable Rosa, then the austere Nonna, or again the tense, chain-smoking Ginzella. She makes visible the multitude of invisible relatives in her extended Italian family, a parade of well-meaning, food-offering aunts, cousins and uncles who, like a Greek chorus, come to offer support and gossip in the moment of need.
Espresso deals with great themes - love, death, family, rancor, the healing power of spirituality and the divine presence of Christ. There is a linear simplicity and a sense of hope that is not often found in today's productions, frequently centred on characters without salvation.
Off stage, Lucia Frangione is simple, spontaneous and unassuming - an elegant thirtysomething with a creamy complexion and a trim figure. She has written nineteen plays, and the presence of her religious beliefs and roots is evident in her inspiration. She says about the Amante character in Espresso: "Amante means lover in Italian, and that is the best way I can describe the spiritual energy that comes to me in times of loneliness and grief. Maybe he's female fantasy, maybe he's an undigested bit of beef, a hormonal flush, a chemical imbalance in my brain, or maybe he's Jesus. I don't know. But I'm a lucky woman. It is entirely biblical for Christ to manifest himself as the groom, but we usually picture him at the altar in the suit, not in the honeymoon suite alive and kicking. It shocks me even to read the erotica of Song of Solomon. Amante challenged me to put him on stage and come out of the closet as a Christian and as a Sensualist, and explore the metaphors that have been fig-leafed by the Church for centuries. He's probably going to get me excommunicated. Oh, well, he's worth it."
Frangione was born in Calgary in 1969, of an Italian father from the Potenza area. She did a four-year playwright apprenticeship with a small school of the arts in Rosebud, Alberta (population: 50). "They are a Christian outfit with a successful dinner theatre," Frangione specifies. That's where she learned to integrate her faith and her art, and it hooked her up with various Christian theatres across North America. Now, the only Christian organization she works with on a regular basis is the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, as her work has become more and more liberal and controversial. She is currently the artist in residence for the Ruby Slippers Theatre in Vancouver and is creating a play called M-M-M, a musical that looks at female sex icons like Mae West, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna who have informed our modern idea of femininity.
Frangione acknowledges her supportive Italian family as a source of inspiration: "I get my sense of wit from my Italian family, and my love for metaphors. My Dad is one of the best storytellers I know, in his quiet grumbling way. He can totally crack me up! He has a profundity that is very earthy and crude. I have certain Dad quotes that I love and write down and plug into plays once in a while. For instance, in Espresso, when Vito wakes up and finds out he's been in an accident, he says: I carry so much of the god-damn world on my shoulders, I gotta grow a bigger ass and carry some of it there.' That's a Dad quote. It's so rude, tragic, and funny all at once."
Frangione considers herself an optimist who believes in people's inner courage and strength and writes about it. "When I come across a true story that blows my mind and gives me hope, I write about it. I often weave fact and fiction together, like a dream gets woven together, and by the time it hits the stage, it doesn't resemble the real events anymore. But it still resonates with the truth of the human dynamic that originally inspired me."
Anna Foschi Ciampolini is a Vancouver writer and journalist.