By any account, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci had an intense and incredibly ballsy life: she distributed grenades with the Italian Resistance as a child, was embedded all over the world as a war correspondent, and, during an interview with Muammar Gaddafi, defiantly removed her headscarf. But at the end, she was bitter, alone, wracked with fear and Islamophobia, and losing her sight to cancer. As her personal assistant in New York until shortly before her death in 2006, Sandro Sechi experienced both her brilliant charisma and her cruelty. His 2006 memoir, Oriana’s Eyes, is now adapted for the stage as a vivid collaborative play, written and directed by Sechi and Jennifer Slack-Eaton, and onstage at the St. Lawrence, starring the irrepressible Jackie Oliveri as Oriana and Seth Rigoletti as Sandro.
Oriana’s assistants tend to not last very long. “You are not as retarded as I thought you would be,” is her first appraisal of Sandro, whose eyes widen and who clutches his hands whenever her equilibrium seems precarious. Between Oriana’s temper, her cancer, and her sleazy publisher Antonio (Michael Tooher), who wants a look at her elusive novel, the sweetly solicitous Sandro has his hands full. Paced by between-scenes Italian jazz numbers (sung by the chanteuse Viva), Oriana’s Eyes tells of Oriana’s fraught friendship with Sandro and her descent into blindness and pathos.
Like Oriana herself, her apartment is a melange of elegance and hardboiled, writerly toughness: it holds a pink satin sofa and a manual typewriter; silky pewter bedclothes and stacks of folders on the floor. Oriana is rarely without a cigarette or a flute of Cristal, and her charming, vivacious wit veers without warning into ire, judgment, or outright meanness. Gaddafi was “a fucking idiot,” she laughs, delighting Sandro with the headscarf story, then talked of the “Pandora’s box” that was September 11, telling Sandro “to keep all Arabs off my property.”
As Sandro, Rigoletti has a softness, a gentle nervousness, and easy affection. He tiptoes toward or shrinks from her deferentially, nods with a big, reassuring smile. You can see in his eyes the cost of holding, without comment, Oriana’s more bigoted judgments—her hatred of her Indian doctor; her mockery of gay men, who, she smirks, look like “teenage beauty queens.” This last weighs particularly heavily on Sandro, we see, as we mark his slightly effeminate gestures and the careful vagueness with which he describes his “girlfriend” back in Italy. Yet Oriana can also be so generous and convivial that Sandro loves her. Rigoletti makes Sandro’s cognitive dissonance palpable in his eyes and hands, the slump or openness of his upper body, the precise tenor of his smile—wary, saddened, or loving.
And I can’t imagine anyone else in town playing Oriana. In her perfect skirt suits, pearls, and mink, Oliveri’s Oriana is the picture of smart, coiffed imperiousness. She modulates deftly between conspiratorial affection and enraged jealousy; between self-sufficiency and horrible, grasping need. Oliveri’s empathetic performance lets us understand how Oriana at once manipulates Sandro’s gentleness, despises it, and envies it. Even in her most brutal moments—insisting that Sandro choose her over his own dying mother—Oliveri lets us know her narcissism, her helpless cruelty, for the sad sickness it is.
And when she brings the valence down low, as she does beautifully, Oliveri lets us feel the profundity of Oriana’s terror. How are we to understand a life of such strength and such smallness, such brilliance and such base bias and cruelty? Oriana’s Eyes helps us consider the question, and honor the woman, with intelligence and compassion.
Oriana’s Eyes | Written and directed by Sandro Sechi and Jennifer Slack-Eaton; Produced by Smoke and Bubbles Productions | Through June 11 | $25 (proceeds benefit Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project) | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland |
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