Folio Theatre Company

When Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s Zastrozzi reached the States ten years ago it was compared with Moliere’s Dom Juan. Frankly, it reminds me more of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Just as Eastwood uses a western to debunk the myth that good always triumphs over evil and justice always prevails, Walker uses the swashbuckling drama to the same end.

In Walker’s drama the year is 1893 and the place is somewhere in Europe. (“Probably Italy,” the author states.) Zastrozzi, the master criminal mind of his generation, holds court here with his henchman Bernardo, his equal in cruelty if not intellect, and Matilda, a femme fatale whose only weakness is her lust for Zastrozzi, who refuses to sate her sexual hunger.

Zastrozzi is seeking revenge against the artist Verezzi, who apparently had something to do with the brutal murder of Zastrozzi’s mother. The crazed Verezzi maintains that Zastrozzi is merely a figment of his assistant Victor’s imagination; it is Victor’s cunning that has allowed them to escape Zastrozzi for the past three years.

As the chase goes on, Zastrozzi explains that it’s not enough for him to simply kill Verezzi; Verezzi must suffer a punishment equal to the one Zastrozzi has gone through seeking out the artist and reliving the pain of his mother’s death. He hatches a plan in which Matilda will seduce Verezzi and then break his heart so he will commit suicide. The plan fails because the easily smitten Verezzi falls in love with a shy virgin named Julia, with whom Zastrozzi, seeing her as his perfect opposite, has also fallen in love. The climax takes us to a deserted prison where justice is meted out in an action-packed, bloody finale.

Walker avoids tying up his drama neatly. When judgment comes at the end, it seems arbitrary and unfair. And Walker never fully answers the question: Does Zastrozzi exist or is he only an embodiment of humankind’s worst fears? When Zastrozzi seduces Julia in one of the most fascinating scenes, he never touches her–he invades her mind.

Zastrozzi is a clever piece of theater, sometimes more clever than intelligent. And it’s unabashedly derivative. Zastrozzi’s relationship with Bernardo recalls Iago and Roderigo. The sexual tension explored in Zastrozzi’s dealings with Julia and Matilda is reminiscent of Les liaisons dangereuses. Zastrozzi and Victor’s matching of wits plays as a less sophisticated version of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty’s. And Zastrozzi’s final appearance as a sort of apparition of death reminded me of, well, Clint Eastwood.

Zastrozzi works best as a cheekily cerebral adventure filled with lively dialogue and exciting swordplay. It fails when it takes itself too seriously. In the closing scene when Victor and Zastrozzi debate the nature of Good and Evil, much of Walker’s dialogue sounds like philosophical hooey extrapolated from class notes on Nietzsche. Worse, Walker makes the cardinal error of telling rather than showing us how smart Zastrozzi and Victor are–and they don’t seem quite as brilliant as Walker would have us believe. After all, why would it take the greatest criminal mind of his generation three years to concoct a harebrained scheme to make Verezzi fall for Matilda and kill himself?

If Alec Wild and Folio Theatre can be faulted in their production, it’s for sticking too faithfully to Walker’s text. The actors speak their lines as if they were performing a classic text of Western drama, an approach that serves some scenes well but undercuts others. Some of the wordier and more self-consciously philosophical passages might have worked better if they were played as parody; some of Folio’s deadpan interpretation inspires more sniggers than intelligent debate.

Still, Folio’s Zastrozzi is exceedingly well staged and performed. The actors treat their small space as if it were as big as the Old Vic, dueling with glee and abandon, and they perform with a grace and assurance quite uncommon to storefront theater. Every aspect of the production, from the simple yet serviceable set pieces to the actors’ timing and diction, exudes professionalism.