Alessandro Renda
Alessandro Renda Credit: Claire Pasquier

“Mica siamo al club Mediterranee,” says the gravel-voiced, stubble-faced guy with the aviator shades and the uniform of a tin-pot general. “This ain’t Club Med.”

No, it sure as hell ain’t.

Written and directed by Marco Martinelli of Italy’s Teatro delle Albe, Noise in the Waters (Rumore di acque) is set in a literally infernal bunker sunk deep in the bowels of a volcanic island, where the nameless but somehow familiar general—Martinelli thought of calling him “Gadhafi”—does his bureaucratic dirty work, identifying the migrants, refugees, and desperate souls who’ve lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe.

That’s no small task. While the “exact number of victims is unknown,” notes scholar Franco Nasi, “estimates presented to the Italian Senate speak of twenty thousand dead in the past twenty years”—or about three every single day for 7,300 days.

The poor general’s problems are compounded by shoddy record keeping. After all, these folks didn’t come through customs, did they? “Can anyone read this?” he moans when we first meet him. “Can anyone make this out? . . . Just scribbles everywhere.” And then there’s the wear and tear wrought by algae, saltwater, “beasts of the sea,” and the incompetence of military officials who, sent to save people from sinking boats, end up running 77 of them through the rescue ship’s propellers instead. A long section of Martinelli’s free-verse script consists of the general reciting ID numbers that ID nothing: “6758 / unknown / 4445 / unknown. . . . ”

Still, a few stories survive. That of an overconfident Western Saharan kid named Yusuf, for instance, who knew how to skipper a boat around a quiet bay but couldn’t contend with serious waves. Of Tunisian Jasmine, who overcame oceanic danger and human depravity only to be enslaved on the European side. Of Nigerian Sakinah, whose bones are coral and eyes are pearls. Of little Jean-Baptiste, who, abandoned by his trafficker and drifting for days, tried to swim home to his mother.

As the general, Alessandro Renda growls out these tales and others, backed by the ghostly music of Sicily’s Mancuso brothers. Martinelli’s 55-minute melologue has been performed in Italian since its premiere in 2010, but the approach will be different for this Chicago run. You’ll hear a strategic mix of Italian with the English translation by Northwestern University lecturer Thomas Simpson.