Nemico mio | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at the Organic Theater

Waiting for Godot on acid.

I know, I know. It sounds strange. It is strange. But the longer I watched Italian performance artist Dario D'Ambrosi's peculiar and dazzling Nemico mio, the more that idea took shape before my eyes.

Like Waiting for Godot, Nemico mio deals in a humorous and haunting way with the bizarre relationship between two eccentric men as they wait in vain for something to happen. Like Estragon and Vladimir, their hopes are delayed and trod upon, but never extinguished. Unlike Beckett's pair, however, the wasteland where Giulio and Tommaso wait is not an abstract country lane, but the mental institution they are confined in.

D'Ambrosi, who plays Giulio, along with Italian film actor Stefano Abbati as Tommaso, based Nemico mio ("Enemy Mine") on two actual patients at a psychiatric hospital in Rome where D'Ambrosi and his theater company perform. One day, D'Ambrosi saw a patient saying goodbye to everyone--he was going to the beach. The patient went into the courtyard, and as D'Ambrosi watched, he began to say good-bye to everyone there, as well. The man paid special attention to another patient who appeared to be oblivious to him. It turned out that the man had been doing this same thing every day for ten years, and had never even seen the seaside.

Because the two characters have fallen off the cliffs of sanity, their means of diverting and amusing themselves are wilder and more frightening than those of Beckett's characters. Tommaso takes a huge, shaving-foam shit, and then proudly displays it for Giulio to marvel at and praise. Giulio plays with a large paper cutout of an erotic female figure with the ecstasy of a child in a candy store. The two careen through their space, slapping against and literally bouncing off the walls.

D'Ambrosi relies less on words, and more on visual images to create the world inside the patients' heads. Set designer Ben Moolhuysen turns their little room into a beach, completely filled with real sand and a few rocks. The voice of the nurse booming through a large red loudspeaker is the only link with the "real" world.

The magic begins with a vivid picture. Lights come up on a bright orange twisted-up rubber raft. The raft begins to breathe and pulsate, a kind of Marx Brothers version of the Blob. As the movement grows, the folds of the raft peel back, revealing Tommaso.

The orange raft is Tommaso's lifeboat, inside of which he can be and do whatever he wants. It can be a towel, or a robe, or a secret hiding place for his prized possessions (which include a mysterious little silver box and a gallery of nudie pictures). Tommaso, mute except for some strange little noises, is self-contained and relatively happy in his private world.

Giulio, on the other hand, is loud and gregarious, and he desperately needs Tommaso. His security blanket is a little red briefcase that seems to contain his hopes for a normal life. Giulio talks incessantly, mostly about the beach.

On the beach, everyone is sane. On the beach, no one can see the flies that Tommaso finds in Giulio's brain. On the beach, there are girls and soccer, and the most important decision is, whether to rent a chair or a cabana. On the beach, everything will be all right. The beach is Giulio's Godot, and he anxiously awaits the day that he can go there.

Stunningly performed by D'Ambrosi and Abbati, Nemico mio uses humor to capture brilliantly the longing and futility of these two men's lives. Like children who have been locked away in their rooms, the two create a vital, fertile life for themselves within the confines of their minds.

Abbati is mesmerizing as the silent Tommaso. Covered with body paint and using a physicality reminiscent of Chaplin, Abbati's Tommaso is the unspoken ruler of Giulio's world. He conveys humor, wit, and pathos, all without ever uttering a real word.

D'Ambrosi's Giulio is equally exciting. He has an endearing naivete, even when he pants and salivates at Tommaso's girlie gallery. While Abbati shows the power that can be present in insanity, D'Ambrosi lets us feel the pain as Giulio realizes he's truly ill.

Howard Thies, who designed the lights, and Drew Martin, who adapted them, managed to achieve, at different times, both the warmth of the sun and the desolate isolation of the hospital.

It is difficult to discuss the themes of Nemico mio and still convey the extraordinary humor in it. The piece is a poignant exploration of a sad situation done with such warmth and joy that when the tears come, they surprise the laughter still burbling in the throat.

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