Igloo, the Theatrical Group

The Saga of Arturo Bandini is more process than product. It’s in the act of becoming, somewhere between a novel and a piece of theater. Igloo had postponed their opening a week, but even so, it was apparent during act two on opening night that Arturo Bandini was still in gestation, had in fact been from the womb “untimely ripp’d.” I felt as if I’d walked into the middle of things, and caught Igloo with its pants down. Nonetheless, catching Igloo with its pants down is an impressive, if awkward, sight.

Arturo Bandini is based upon John Fante’s obscure 1933 novel, The Road to Los Angeles. Igloo’s dramatization of the novel is one of those ensemble efforts–rarely risked these days–that reassert the theater’s need for a playwright. But, in concocting its own adaptation, Igloo makes up in physical imagery for what it lacks in words. True, the work is unfinished, the performance is unpolished. Yet that portion of the novel that does manage to barge its way into the medium of theater screams and kicks with life, and can in no way be put back again.

I haven’t read The Road to Los Angeles but I get the impression from this show that much of it is interior dialogue and fantasy. Welcome to the world of 18-year-old Arturo Bandini. He’s an irrepressible, horny kid who can’t keep a steady, boring job. He’s a frustrated writer, a misogynist, a euphoric megalomaniac, in fact any number of things describable in such polysyllabic terms, by means of which he regularly lionizes himself. His confrontations with reality are pitifully timid; but in his demimonde of daydream, nightmare, self-abuse, and rhetoric, Arturo Bandini is a juggernaut.

Igloo uses various approaches to blast open Arturo’s inner world. Arturo (played by Doug Spinuzza) has an inner self (played by Dan Munnelly) who appears at times of self-doubt, and in those schizoid moments when a man’s best friend is himself. There are also periodic voice-overs and soliloquies. But by far the most marvelous are the scenes of Arturo’s fantasies, boldly and imaginatively realized in dance, loud music, combat, and black, flimsy negligees.

The first (and most unforgettable) of these fantasies begins as young Arturo is making the scene with a magazine–or “improving my mind,” as Arturo shouts to his “smuthound” mother while masturbating in a clothes closet. Enter, I don’t know, Cleopatra I suppose, on some sort of dogcart/ricksha. She climbs out and dances to serpentine music. Arturo leaps from the closet and joins in. (And, holy mackerel, Spinuzza can really dance! No amateur, this guy.) In due course the music turns grotesque, as Arturo reaches climax. Following this, Arturo slumps in ugly Catholic guilt and shame, and Cleopatra, somehow disdainfully, almost in revulsion, gets back in her vehicle and exits.

This is no cheap-shot, adolescent jerk-off scene but the first insight into Arturo’s tense, sexually obsessed vision of women. In another fantasy scene, Arturo seduces and kills the Cleopatra succubus with her own snake. He also strangles Isadora Duncan with her scarf and, after wrestling a knife from his sister (who is wearing a wedding dress), kills her, too. Odd, that in this latter fantasy, all the women should provide their own murder weapons. Yet before I had time to reflect on the Freudian implications, I was stunned by the sheer exhilaration of Arturo’s victory dance. And, yes, I secretly participated. All those repressed, chauvinistic, atavistic, politically unfashionable, undeniably male instincts arose within me and reveled, then crawled back into their little holes while I smoked a cigarette during intermission. I loved it.

Don’t bother me with details, with the overrehearsed and underimagined sort of theater, when I can have this–theater that blows the lid off the id.

After this, the second act seems anticlimactic. Lacking the energy and impact of act one, it bogs down in a grinding march toward dramatic resolution. Arturo becomes nagged by realities: his job, his failed novel, his home life with his mother and sister. He senses the ridiculousness of his situation. And so he decides to leave home and go to LA: end of play, and an abrupt and crudely expedient end at that–as if to say, well, it was just a rite of passage all along, and nothing more.

Or is there a deeper message here: that problems are not solved but only grown into and out of? Has Arturo indeed started a fantastic journey of self-discovery, become merely self-conscious instead, and moved on to LA where his shame won’t compound interest daily? If so, it is a message in the making, not made.

Much that is made, and left unmade, in The Saga of Arturo Bandini is the work of Doug Spinuzza. Spinuzza strikes me as more performer than actor. His energy, his physicalization of the character, and his sense of humor are terrific. Most of the time, he’s so at home in the character of Arturo Bandini that he can afford to be casual. When the street vendor’s strap unexpectedly breaks, and his tray is in danger of spilling, Spinuzza pauses and ad libs, “I’m worried about you, Jim.” And whenever dancing, or rage, or exultation are called for, Spinuzza is on the money. But the angst at the root of Arturo Bandini remains a mystery to me, as I suppose it must have to Doug Spinuzza. Still, I think it would have been easier to coach Spinuzza than to find another actor as inspired in this role.

The rest of the credit must be spread throughout the Igloo ensemble: to Lisa Stodder (playing Mona Bandini and Shorty Naylor) for her acting; to Val Olney and Maria Tirabassi, not only for their imaginative choreography but for their good sense in suiting it to the cast’s talents; to whoever danced the part of the Crab Princess; and to director Christopher Peditto (whom I beg to finish what he’s begun).

Arturo Bandini is the third production I’ve seen at Igloo, and this time I think I’m able to define what’s different about this theater. Some things about them are merely rare: they’re experimental, they’re on the second floor, they dabble in the visual arts. But what’s most unusual about Igloo is its sense of proportion. They are bigger than life. In the past I’ve watched an Igloo actor make his entrance from a ledge outside the window. This time I watched Arturo Bandini fight a ten-foot crab to the death, and then dance a pas de deux with a beautiful crab princess. There’s a sense of the heroic here. This isn’t life shrunk to fit the stage. This is something big. And every time I come out of Igloo, I feel big and weird and a little unpredictable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Edward Donahue.