Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline is like a dream of cool masculinity — as conjured by a deeply reactionary 14-year-old straight boy.
Consider the hero of George F. Walker’s 1977 play, which draws heavily on the 1810 novel by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Having killed over 200 men, Zastrozzi is “the master criminal of all Europe”. He is able to deflower a virgin using only his voice. And he peddles a stylish line in nihilism: “Understanding the truth is understanding that the force of darkness is constant.” Arrogance personified, Zastrozzi kills a mediocre artist “to prove that even artists must answer to somebody.”
Yes, Walker has drawn the character of Zastrozzi with a large, free hand: the portrait is meant to be a caricature. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not also meant to be cool. In this play about revenge-fuelled combat, Zastrozzi is the best swordsman.
Speaking of revenge, that’s what the strangely dull plot is about. For three years, Zastrozzi has been tracking a man named Verrezzi. Verrezzi’s father (now deceased) killed Zastrozzi’s mother in a particularly grim way, apparently, and it’s payback time.
Verrezzi, who has a guilty conscience because of another murder, has gone mad and now believes himself to be a messenger of God. Verrezzi is protected by a former priest named Victor and Zastrozzi is assisted by a thug called Bernardo.
There are only two female characters and both are defined almost completely by their sexuality: Julia, whom Verrezzi falls in love with and whom Zastrozzi seduces, is a virgin; Matilda, Zastrozzi’s second accomplice, is — you guessed it — a whore. Matilda is into dominance and submission — mostly submission: she says she could never fall in love with a man who’s not capable of murdering her. And Julia is an object. Kidnapped and dragged off to an abandoned prison, she says to her abductor: “You’re going to rape me and murder me. Not necessarily in that order.” In the world of this play, that’s a laugh line.
Especially in Act 1 of this interpretation from Star & Moon Productions, I found it virtually impossible to engage with the content of Zastrozzi. Off the top, the script is overly expository and, throughout, its ideas about optimism and pessimism, religion and nihilism, strike me as more pretentious than resonant.
But I am not knocking the production.
In fact, under Jennifer Copping’s direction, this mounting includes some excellent performances. In a seamless piece of work, Birkett Turton makes a svelte, smart, insinuating Zastrozzi. Massimo Frau’s Verrezzi is wonderfully giddy and changeable — infantile and ecstatic. Emmett Lee Stang gets maximum comic spin out of Victor without ever betraying the character’s serious intentions. And I appreciate the committed doltishness of Giacomo Baessato’s Bernardo.
Within the weird confines of the role, Starlise Waschuk is fine as Matilda, although the eroticism never really fires. For the most part, Alissa Hansen’s Julia is flat.
I have no idea where Zastrozzi and Bernardo’s accents were supposed to be from. Waschuk is swinging for French as Matilda, but misses widely. To their credit, to some extent Stang as Victor and certainly Frau as Verrezzi come across as credibly Italian. In this exotic mix, Hansen’s Canadian cadences as Julia — she puts no character spin on them at all — come across as startlingly dull.
Itai Erdal’s dramatic lighting — boldly theatrical shafts cut through swirling mist — is excellent. Dustin Clark does some cool things with sound, distorting voices and supporting the dramatic action with propulsive but not intrusive music. Mike Kovac and Ryan Bolton contribute a whole lot of inventive fight choreography. And Hilary Jardine’s costumes are darkly stylin’. (I want to wear Zastrozzi’s black military-style tunic.)
Director Copping and her crew have lavished a lot of love on this script but, to me, it looks like a dysfunctional relationship: the script is not giving back.
ZASTROZZI: THE MASTER OF DISCIPLINE By George F. Walker. Directed by Jennifer Copping. Presented by Star & Moon Productions. In the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, June 13. Continues until June 21. Tickets.
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