No theater in the world has done more for Italian drama than the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, which, despite the diminutive in its name, has become famous for bold productions of works by the likes of Carlo Goldoni, Luigi Pirandello and Eduardo De Filippo. There is also nothing Piccolo (small) about the company of 14 Italian actors, who have arrived in Chicago for Piccolo's American premiere of "Inner Voices," one of the lesser known works by De Filippo, who wrote more than 50 plays. And there is nothing Piccolo about the stature of Toni Servillo, who directs and stars in this enterprise, and who, to quote London's Independent on Sunday, arguably is "the best European actor you've never heard of."
Actually, fans of such contemporary Italian movie directors as Paolo Sorrentino or Matteo Garrone will have heard plenty about Servillo who, as is more common in Europe, has split his career between stage and screen. Famous stateside or not, he is an extraordinary actor, at turns Beckettian, Chaplin-esque, Peter Sellers-like and, well, deliciously and perpetually perplexed.
In this particular piece, he is called upon to be both the protagonist of extraordinary events and an everyman figure who cannot quite figure out the rules of the world in which he finds himself. To extend the Sellers metaphor a bit, Servillo's character, Alberto, has one foot in the pliant, cypher-like character of Chance from "Being There" and one foot in that of Inspector Clouseau from "The Pink Panther."
If at some points in "Inner Voices" — presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater with funding help from the Italian government — you have the feeling that you are watching two actors with a creepy similarity playing the role of brothers, that's because Toni Servillo plays opposite his actual brother, Peppe Servillo. The two men, who have a habit of putting their heads so close together they look like twin targets in a shooting range, certainly embody fraternal intimacy. They have a shorthand that's positively transfixing. There's one moment, when the well-being of Toni's guy is threatened, you get the sense that his brother is drawing from some deep waves of complex affection and rivalry in the way he wordlessly combines criticism and concern. It's quite something to watch, as is the way Toni delivers De Filippo's dialogue — his breaths barely apparent but his emotional crises fully out in the open.
"Inner Voices," I should note, is not for all tastes and is not easy to follow when performed in Italian (there are surtitles, although even these can be oblique). So read the program summation before the show.
As with many of De Filippo's plays, "Inner Voices" (penned in 1948 in the middle of his career) uses one seemingly genial or naive character (played by Servillo) to reveal the rapacious nature of modern society. In other words, one guy sets something in motion and then the baser natural instincts take it from there. In some ways, the play is arguing, almost in a neo-Freudian way, that we dismiss dreams too easily, when they actually reveal far more of the human capacity for good or evil than we think.
Most of De Filippo's characters are Neopolitans (who speak in dialect) and the milieu is quite specific and, therefore, there is something about seeing it performed by a traditional European repertory company. In this case, Servillo's production throws out a lot of the usual realistic clutter in favor of a very sparse conceit, which doesn't aid understanding (locales are not precise), but certainly finds the more Pirandellian theatricality in the script — which makes sense since De Filippo was greatly influenced by Pirandello.
The demands of international touring would, ideally, have let Servillo to seek out more narrative clarity than he here achieves; I'd argue that a more realistic world would only have intensified the feeling of it melting before you.
A few in the opening-night crowd Tuesday seemed to give up on trying to keep tabs on who was causing what. But some of the individual scenes are truly extraordinary. You might feel like you're watching a Sophia Loren movie or post-war Italian newsreel, yet the sense of meta-theater is far more intense. Servillo, a man to whom the movies have been kind, ends up creating a kind of live version of "Cinema Paradiso," except that the dreams of the protagonist make a whole lot more trouble.
When: Through June 29
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $50-$70 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com