Touching Italian Comedy 'The Thief' Revived

The Moscow Times
By John Freedman
Published: February 26, 2009
(русский перевод)

There must be a bit of the Neapolitan in every Muscovite. How else do you justify the enduring love that Moscow theater has for Eduardo de Filippo, the actor from Naples whose thoughtful comedies are regularly revived in this town?

Maybe it's the combination of haplessness and good heart, the endless striving to find meaning in life and get rich quick? Or maybe it's the way people in his plays lay themselves on the line, ready to give themselves up for whatever the moment requires -- friendship, love or squeezing out of a tight spot?

All of these elements are present in De Filippo's "De Pretore Vincenzo," staged by Yury Klepikov at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater under the title of "The Thief." Despite boasting a cast of two dozen, this is a chamber play that focuses tightly on Vincenzo, a petty thief, and the impressionable Ninuccia who is certain that her love is capable of working miracles. As is common for this author, the story is touching, funny and cautionary all at the same time.

Alexei Shevchenkov is a man possessed as Vincenzo. Rough around the edges but soft underneath, he lives at a speed of 200 miles an hour, probably as a means to outrunning the demons chasing him. There is always someone on his tail, always some little sin nipping at his heels and threatening to bring him down -- both in the eyes of the law and of the girl he comes excruciatingly close to loving. The thought of conscience doesn't ever quite bother him, at least until it's too late, but this seems less a flaw than an oversight. He's just too busy keeping ahead of the pack to let something so amorphous as conscience get in his way.

As Ninuccia, Maria Kozlova is a character out of a fairy tale. Her gullibility is endless, her loyalty unshakable, her purity unquestionable. She so hopelessly and sincerely falls in love with the shifty but charming Vincenzo that she literally puts herself into his hands and never gives it a second thought. It is the kind of leap of faith that only the most trusting, pure-hearted young lover could be capable of.

Not that there isn't reason for Ninuccia to doubt. Donna Carmela, the mistress of the house where Vincenzo lives, is clearly suspicious about her boarder. As played by Tatyana Mukhina, she is a woman who has seen more sleights of hand from unscrupulous types than any one single Vincenzo could pack into a lifetime. She smells a rat, and she does her best to keep Ninuccia out of harm's way. Not that it does any good.

Under Klepikov's direction the humor of all this is downplayed in favor of a whiff of tragedy and an abundance of tenderness. There is an ache to this show that appears with the first appearance of the huffing and puffing Vincenzo. His later lament -- "I have a right to a happy life" -- is a leitmotif to the whole work, although right to the very end it is never certain as to whether it is true or not.

De Filippo throws several unexpected twists into this tale about two down-and-out individuals trying in different ways to make something of their lives.

And Klepikov turns his cast loose on the curves. A big outdoor scene replete with flower girls, passers-by, American tourists, policemen, an egg seller and many more is whipped into a big song and dance number with an apparently repentant Vincenzo leading the whole town in some pretty snazzy steps. Even later, Vincenzo's trip into the afterlife brings about another quick-step number with a gaggle of saints and His Lord Almighty -- all as part of the petty thief's continuing search for his version of justice in the world.

What Vincenzo never seems to get, even as he wraps God around his little finger, is that you cannot fake it in love. And if you do, it'll come back to haunt you.

Against the background of Masha Pozdneyeva's lifelike set of a low-class dwelling and a spacious Italian piazza, Klepikov keeps this show constantly off-kilter. It is full of strange, unrealistic events such as a tray tossed in the air that never comes down or the sound of running water incongruously accompanying Ninuccia's stories of washing bottles for a living.

This production of "The Thief" promises more humor than it delivers but has plenty of that stuff that makes the heart strings go "ping!"

 ""The Thief" (Vor) plays Sat., March 8, 21 and 27 at 7 p.m. at the Dzhigarkhanyan Theater, located at 17 Lomonosovsky Prospekt. Metro Universitet. Tel. 930-7049, 930-4269, 133-1664. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Actor Alexei V.Shevchenkov

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