By Bonnie McGrath

When Francesca Fanti was a little girl in Tivoli, Italy, she loved to watch the husband-and-wife team Dario Fo and Franca Rame on TV. The playwrights and political agitators, banned from the U.S. because of their radical politics, performed skits that poked fun at the Italian establishment, driving conservatives–and the Vatican–nuts. Fanti had to watch their show on the sly; her mother, a housewife who later opened a maternity- and baby-clothes store, and her father, a supervisor at a Pirelli tire factory, didn’t approve of their daughter’s exposure to the subversive duo.

Though she wanted to be an actress, in order to please her parents Fanti went on to study languages in Rome and London. She landed a job with an Italian travel company and went around the world designing package tours. But in the late 80s she took six months off to try modeling in New York, and in 1991 she enrolled in an acting seminar in Los Angeles. Realizing she still wanted to act for a living, she quit her job, gave up her apartment in Rome, and moved to southern California, where she quickly found work in commercials and films.

Three years ago her life collided with Fo’s and Rame’s when she auditioned for the City Garage theater company in Santa Monica–which unbeknownst to her was producing a play the duo had written for Rame in the 70s, Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo, a zany suite of monologues about women and their problems with men. Fanti was hired to play a slightly manipulative damsel on a balcony.

Orgasmo, which was adapted by Estelle Parsons, was well received. A few months after it opened Fo won the Nobel Prize for literature. The next day Los Angeles’s Italian Cultural Institute called Fanti. In honor of Fo’s prize, they wanted her to do all the monologues in Orgasmo as a one-woman show.

“I was really scared,” Fanti recalls. “A friend, a composer from Italy, was visiting, and when he heard me hesitate and say I needed to think about it and talk about it, he thought I was crazy. He made me feel like a coward. I thank him for that. He went with me to the meeting, and I’m grateful to him because he wouldn’t let me say no.”

After that production the Fremont Center near Pasadena offered Fanti the chance to do the play for six weeks. It sold out and was extended. A theater in San Francisco asked her to do two solo performances during a Fo festival. That gig was extended for 15 weeks. Fanti played to packed houses and picked up a couple of awards.

In August Fanti’s solo rendition of Orgasmo, in which she performs five of the original monologues, opened in Chicago at the Theatre Building. The reviews in the dailies were lukewarm at best. In the Reader Justin Hayford–who gave a rave to Trap Door Theatre’s mounting of the same work several years back–called this production “slipshod” and criticized Fanti for making the characters “nearly interchangeable.”

Fanti was surprised at the criticism and felt the play wasn’t taken in the proper context. “It’s the kind of satire you really have to be open to, you have to laugh at the craziness, the extremes. It’s not exact reality. It’s abstract.” She says it’s possible California audiences were more childlike, more ready to laugh. “It is good for the show–even though maybe it’s not so good for other things.”

She was particularly taken aback by Sun-Times reviewer Lucia Mauro, who took her to task for a publicity poster in which she was photographed in a Jane Russell-esque sexpot pose, showing lots of cleavage but wearing boxing gloves as well. “The poster is ironic,” she explains. “It’s a feminist show. Every single person who comes to the show understands the poster; the show is against the exploitation of women. Hell-o-o!”

After the show closes next weekend, Fanti is scheduled to do two performances in March at a festival in New York. Then there’s a woman in Atlanta who wants to do a documentary about Rame and Fo, interweaving scenes of the couple talking in a taxi with excerpts of Fanti’s performances. But after three years her life with Fo and Rame may be finally coming to a close. She now has other plans, including taking a part in a made-for-TV movie about the beatified priest Padre Pio.

Fanti wishes the Chicago production of Orgasmo had used a smaller space to save on expenses. She’s been lonesome here, living in a sublet apartment, and wishes she knew more people to kick around with. If the show had caught on, she says, she might have had a better time in Chicago. After next weekend she’ll fly back to LA to hang out with her boyfriend for a while. “I’ve never before looked forward to that, just to relax and be in my life,” she says. “It hasn’t been easy here.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.