He wears a cape, skulks in the dark, considers himself virtually invulnerable and a master of many weapons, is loved by a criminal whose desire he does not let himself reciprocate, lost a parent to an assassin and now lives outside the law, making moral judgments according to his private code.
No, he’s not Batman. He’s the title character of “Zastrozzi, Master of Discipline,” which opened at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre on the same day as “The Dark Knight Rises.” And though Batman’s adventures never raise a smile, “Zastrozzi” elicits hoots of amusement.
George Walker’s play riffs off a Gothic novel set in Italy and written at 17 by Percy Shelley, speaking of people with no known sense of humor. Shelley meant to outrage British society; the Canadian Walker, who couldn’t have hoped to do that in 1977, cut half the characters and redefined many situations.
The results might be played as dead-serious melodrama, assuming people could accept that nowadays, or they might be played as a kind of anarchic comedy, as the six performers here do under the direction of Tony Wright. (He also stars as Zastrozzi, designed the lighting and choreographed unusually effective sword fights.)
Zastrozzi, an atheistic assassin mightily impressed with his own metaphysics, has decided to mete out justice in the absence of God. The other five characters all seem to represent qualities he doesn’t have himself; ultimately, he can’t allow them to exist near him.
Matilda (Karina Roberts-Caporino), a seductress who sometimes does his bidding, has sexual passion he lacks. Julia (Michelle Busiek), a virginal aristocrat, has a kind of purity he’s compelled to ruin.
Bernardo (Lamar Wilson), his servant, acts on physical impulses that repel the ascetic assassin. Victor (Brian Willard), the protector of a mad Italian artist named Verezzi, acts entirely upon logic, and that too makes Zastrozzi angry. Though Zastrozzi has sworn to murder Verezzi (Colby Davis), this dreamer is the only person onstage to whom he may really relate – because both are mad messiahs of different types.
Or so I think. Maybe the play is simply as crazy as 20 lobsters in one small fish tank. Zastrozzi announces, “Life is a series of arbitrary and totally meaningless events, and the only way to get through life is to forget you know that.” Might the playwright intend that as a clue?
Whatever’s going on, the only way for an actor to play it is to commit wholeheartedly to a choice. Busiek, Willard and especially Wilson do that. Davis should be more swept up in his lunacy; Roberts-Caporino realizes Matilda could seem ludicrous and tries to make her semi-ironic, which doesn’t work. Wright has flamboyance and a grave voice and lacks only the burning eyes of the zealot.
The audience enters and exits to wildly overblown music by Ennio Morricone, taken from spaghetti westerns. Morricone and the Italian directors who hired him knew their operatically broad movies could succeed only if executed with absolute commitment, however nutty the subject matter. If the cast can take a hint from the composer, they’ll strike to the bizarre heart of this play.