The Return to ‘Sustained Energetic Collisions’ …in Red Hook: Ben Gassman’s BOTTE DI FERRO
Ben Gassman invited me to preview a run-through rehearsal of his new play, Botte di Ferro, in its environmental staging at The Good Fork in Red Hook Brooklyn, directed by Tara Elliott and starring (the inimitable) Jess Barbagallo as “Him” and (the incomparable) Layla Khoshnoudi as “Her,” produced by Meucci & Bell in association with The Tank. (Rounding out the four-hander ensemble are the affecting and texturally essential actors Allesandro Magania as “Waiter” and, founder of the Italian repertory Kairos Italy Theater, Laura Caparrotti as “Pizzaiola.”)
Ordinarily this would not be an unusual invitation – Gassman and I are friends and colleagues and have often relied on each other’s thoughts and comments in art exchange. But these are anything but ordinary times. Eh, New York? Eh, America? Eh, Italy? (The play takes place, partly, in Naples and other Italian locations.)
In fact, the rehearsal was my first experience of live performers conjuring an imagined world since the real world shut down (most unimaginably) in March of 2020, making that night the official end to my full 16-month live-arts deprivation.
To be frank, I was not so much expectatious or excited as I was disoriented.
Right. This is what it feels like to close my screen, exit my home, travel to a venue with intent.
Right. Those voices beyond the gate are what a collective of collaborative artists preparing for a show sounds like.
Right. This is what an affectionate hug with fellow artists does for my soul.
This is what it feels like to sit down pre-show TURN. OFF. MY. PHONE. waiting for that alchemical spark of dialogue and behavior to start shaping a story in front of my beguiled mind.
So I suppose it was appropriate to begin my reorientation with the chronologically disoriented work that is Gassman’s Botte di Ferro. (What day is it, again? What month? What year?) The title – literal English translation = “iron barrel” – is both the name of the Napolitano Pizzeria in the play and an Italian idiom for a “safe, quasi-sacred place,” according to The Tank’s promotional listing for the show.
Appropriate structure/title or no, the urgency with which this was being produced, the caliber of the performers, the location, the setting of the action (pre-pandemic, pre-Trump) made me wonder, before the run-through began, what such a work has to say about our surreal, polarized, divisive moment of global/personal trauma, especially being set, in Khoshnoudi’s description, “in that quaint era of the two thousand tens, before we healed toxic bonds. When we just hurled ourselves repeatedly into twin flame pits of hell.” (On second thought, maybe any concerns about *relevance* were o’erhasty.)
And listen, the ‘Right Play’ to break a 16-month live-performance fast is too much to put on any show, let alone a rehearsal. But I have to report that from the first entrance, the first authentically accented word delivered by “Waiter,” the first run of conversationally enjambed dialogue (characteristic of Gassman’s oeuvre), I was reassured. Indeed, lifted. Levitated!
The seamlessness! – of setting, of time, of memory! Of romantic audacity!*
The electricity of these actors!
Real, dimensional, time-based space!
(*I stole that phrase from Khoshnoudi, who admitted that the role felt like a “cosmic gift” given its alignment with some recent personal history and both of the performers’ “romantically audacious” predispositions in their offstage lives.)
[Napoli. 34(years old). Pizzeria Botte di Ferro.]
So blah blah
we fuck and we eat pizza and we fuck and
Repeat. Gloriously repeat […]
I love you
And then there’s the world to contend with.
Well, soon we’ll have to contend again with the fact that
we don’t really like each other. Right, hon?
For those unfamiliar with Gassman’s work, Ben is a New York treasure – which is to say, a writer whose voice is inherently made of the rhythms of New York’s genuinely diverse vernacular, which he kineticizes and repurposes to his heightened, moral intentions. Gassman is the real article, the authentic listener, who has heard in the city’s woke and hip aspirations, its angry and tired lives, and its ever-evolving demography the real meaning of ordinary anguish – the struggle of individual targets of various violences (social, racial, personal) to comprehend and act in today’s bewilderingly-scaled world. The local is global in his work – fairly literally; his home-borough of Queens is a collection of global perspectives, of course – and informs the generously drawn, sharply observed local landscapes and characters in his plays.
[Candy store. 16. High.]
Ok booger, how much you have?
it was my weed
Come on cheapo. Cough it up. I’m gonna get the pizza
Oh you like pizza?
Duh. Like more than my family.
I thought you just liked like Doritos and candy and gross
I’m from Brooklyn.
So the best pizza in the world is from Brooklyn.
Best pizza in the world is from Italy dumbass.
Have you ever even been to Italy?
No. Have you?
I also reached out to Barbagallo and Khoshnoudi to get at their paths to involvement, as well as their experiences returning from isolation. To be fair, both actors deserve profiles of their own (on this show and both of their ever-deepening artistry) that would exceed the space I have here. But while their curiosity, rigor, interrogation of perspective, and mindful skepticism of industry protocols may have factored into interest in a site-specific project off the (pre-pandemic) beaten path, it is their stage dynamic and magnetic connection that is worth the price of admission. They are asked by the script to carry the show, and they do it handily. It may be the most obviously satisfying post-pandemic act imaginable, but it is not voyeuristic of me to cop to the thrill that is watching two flesh-and-blood actors make out. Add in the meta-thrill that is Jess Barbagallo playing the romantic male lead (Barbagallo is trans-masculine) alongside Khoshnoudi (she/non-) playing the female, and everything just feels right in the universe for a split second. …until it disintegrates again. Into addled jealousy. Other priorities. Other people. Memories. Struggles.
Sounding relevant yet?
Khoshnoudi and I discussed the unreconstructed, unapologetic language of “Her” – the catharsis and transgression in playing a confident/insecure, loyal/manipulative, all-forward-movement alpha-girl from Brooklyn, who just cannot talk or fuck herself out of a gravitational attachment to “Him” but refuses to stop meeting the moment when their orbits inevitably realign, willfully or otherwise. For Barbagallo’s part, he admitted that his “connection” with the play was “not so much happening through my brain” but that it was a conversation with his friend Emily Davis that reminded him of the unique appeal of the Live: unlike the desultory nature of creating a film performance, say, live theater is the only place to create a “drama” through “sustained energetic collision.”
[phones. 32. 10:30 AM.]
Is it real?
What does he
How’s your hangover?
I’m still drunk.
Does your girlfriend know you called me twenty times last
By the end of the run-through, I caught myself reflecting on the play’s deeper seamlessness with our moment – emerging from this global pandemic. Time has been suspended. In our various states of isolation, we were individually forced to confront the disordered experience of Time at the distance of Memory. We rub our eyes, carry ourselves to a restaurant in Red Hook (or Naples), and wonder how the hell we find ourselves here again.
Congratulations to all my fellow artists who found ways to keep making your work – whether outdoors (tip o’ the cap to Normandy Sherwood and HERE), under strict protocols (tip to Flako Jimenez and The Tank/Starr/NYTW/et al), audio theater (big tip to Trish Harnetiaux & co. and Playwrights Horizons/Katie Brook/Ben Williams), over the internets [or whatever that Zoom-thing is] (tip to so many of you! …Maestro De Shields, April Matthis, Theater in Quarantine, et al).
But for a lover of the Live, it was a little tricky. My lover was absent. And I felt I had to recede. I had to wait. Hoping, with proximity restored, that gravitational pull would be irresistible.
Gassman’s play beckons us. Under Elliott’s fluent guidance, and in Barbagallo’s and Khoshnoudi’s committed performances, it thrills us back to flirtation. Demands we risk venturing out again. Get together. Share the air. In body and heart.
Ok you come swimming and I’ll buy you two slices precious little baby and candy and…
And I’ll get you high.
Really, baby sister.
Pretty fucked up to get your baby sister high.
What would your name be if you were my sister?
It’s your imagination weirdo.
(She gets up.)
Let’s go, let’s go see how you swim in the dark
Right. This is what collisions feel like. And goddamn they feel good.