On Saturday, June 14, the DAS, with the generous sponsorship of Brembo and Reply, partnered with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Consulate of Italy in Detroit for an exceptional evening dedicated to two beautiful expressions of Italian passion, soccer and art. A crowd gathered in Kresge Court to watch Italy defeat England 2-1 in their first appearance in the 2014 World Cup, and then convened to the Lecture Hall for a theatrical performance of Hanno Tutti Ragione [Everybody’s Right].

 Hanno Tutti Ragione is a work adapted from a novel by director Paolo Sorrentino, who just won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the film La grande bellezza [The Great Beauty]. The Great Beauty told the story of a Roman society that had come to lack substance, an ephemeral world where ideologies and friendships and sincerity are fleeting.

The film begins with an epigraph from French writer Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night”: «Il viaggio che ci è dato è interamente immaginario: ecco la sua forza, va dalla vita alla morte. Uomini, bestie, città e cose: è tutto inventato»; “Our own journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. Men, beasts, cities, things, all are imagined.”

But of course the force of The Great Beauty is in no small part Rome—the real, eternal city and its men, beasts, and things: there is strength and substance underlying the fragile now of the film’s story. This substance also exists behind the scenes of the film, where we find a collaborative network of people whose relationships are real, substantive, and enduring. One of those people is actress Iaia Forte, who appeared on stage as Tony Pagoda.

Iaia Forte is one of the most celebrated actresses in Italy today, both for her work on stage and on screen. She has collaborated with leading stage directors, including Mario Martone, Carlo Cecchi, Emma Dante, Luca Ronconi, and Toni Servillo, and with film directors who include Pappi Corsicato, Maurizio Nichetti, Valeria Golino, Peter Greenaway, and of course Sorrentino. She has won numerous awards for her work. Forte, actor Toni Servillo, and director Paolo Sorrentino were all formed in the Teatro Uniti, a theater in Naples that is committed to interweaving theatrical language with that of music, the visual arts, and film. In my conversation with her before the show, Forte describes the experience at Teatro Uniti as a form of “community arts,” a space of creative collaboration.

In Hanno Tutti Ragione, a theatrical monologue, she interprets for us a character named Tony Pagoda, a Neapolitan singer who is also a cocaine addict, alcoholic, a frequenter of prostitutes, misanthrope, and someone with a very high opinion of himself. He and his band are opinionated, too.

In a memorable scene in the novel, two band members are arguing about whether or not their favorite pizza maker likes making pizza margherita, that red, white and green Neapolitan classic with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella named for Italy’s queen. One band member argues that Angelino’s margherita is the best in the city; the other insists that he makes margherita only because he has to, and that his real passion is for stuffed pizza. Titta says: “That stupid patriotic queen thought we were a simple people and she foisted a simple pizza on us, but who did she think she was? We Italians have all the captivating complexity of a stuffed pizza.”

Titta goes on to insist that Naples is layered in its culture, its geology, its geography, and is fundamentally opposed to the simple geometry of the margherita pizza. Think of Vesuvius jutting above the city, or the caves underneath from when volcanic “tufo” was extracted to build the city. Think of hundreds of years of Roman gladiators and Epicurian philosophers and German Grand Tourists and Bourbon occupiers and American soldiers; think of film directors, theater actors, and pizza makers winding their way through narrow streets and across the bay. Forte described to me a sort of “biological memory” that exists in Italy, a memory of beauty, of dialect, of place. Stuffed pizza all the way.

This humorous, irreverent anecdote, typical of Sorrentino’s style and Tony Pagoda’s tone, also tells a story of a desire for depth, of an engagement with history and culture and gastronomy and place that in some way challenges the notion that everything we see here in front of us is imaginary, or at least only imaginary. That’s what theater does, too, as it brings the bodies of the cinematic screen to our doorstep in flesh and blood, to speak with us, to speak across the distance between stage and audience, to connect us, in some corporeal way, to an elaborate and entertaining game of pretend.

Tony Pagoda is a man. In cross-dressing, Iaia Forte engages with a long theatrical tradition of transforming bodies, part of the strength of that imaginary journey that art makes explicit, brings to life. But Tony Pagoda, in Hanno Tutti Ragione, performs in New York, in Radio City Music Hall, and so in some way that imaginary journey comes a little closer to our reality, to the border and culture crossings that an audience in Detroit represents. Forte says that it is a kind of theatrical “short-circuit,” crossing the wires between art and reality.

Forte hopes that Sorrentino’s Oscar will encourage Italian artists to continue to take aesthetic risks, to engage ethically, to create art that challenges us, and to believe in a public that wants to be challenged. The audience in Detroit was fortunate to be able to witness, in Forte’s brilliant performance, one such risk being taken, one such challenge being waged.

Elena M. Past
Associate Professor of Italian
Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
Wayne State University