In Lawrence Wright’s “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, the legendary Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, casts her fiery spell, contradictions and all
It is rumored that when the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, learned that she had cancer, she didn’t ask the oncologist how much longer she had left to live, she asked, “How many books do I have left to write?” And write she did, creating some of her most controversial work at the end of her life. In the wake of 9/11, she argued violently and passionately in two best-selling books that our (Western) civilization and radical Islam are fundamentally incompatible and her book, The Rage and the Pride, drew accusations of inciting hatred against Muslims.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s “Fallaci,” which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is an intense and captivating look at Oriana Fallaci, “la Fallaci,” the internationally acclaimed journalist, war correspondent, interviewer, and novelist who made her reputation in the 1970’s with a series of unforgettable interviews with autocratic figures in their homelands—the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Gaddafi, Castro, Kissinger. This petite Italian dynamo said what she wanted to say and asked what she wanted to ask of the world’s most fascinating leaders. She seemed capable of taking any political tiger by its tail and then kneeing it right in the crotch as she got her subjects to admit things publicly that later caused them much grief. “Don’t you find,” she asked Henry Kissinger during Vietnam, “that it’s been a useless war?” “On this, I can agree,” said the then Secretary of State. He later admitted that this interview was the “single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.” By the time her cancer was diagnosed, Fallaci had literally done it all, everything her profession could offer. For people like me, who became foreign correspondents, she was our end and be-all. Wright’s play has been on my radar for over a year now and it did not disappoint in any way.
In “Fallaci,” the tables are turned on Oriana Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei) as she is interviewed by a young Iranian-American New York Times journalist Maryam (played by Marjan Neshat). The play is set in 1990’s, when Fallaci became increasingly reclusive and divided her time between her apartments in Manhattan and Florence. What emerges is a captivating portrait of a strong, rough, grieving—and thoroughly glorious woman—who fights tooth and nail to have her truth her way, despite the facts. The play stands on Wright’s marvelous script which provides an engaging commentary on the ethics of journalism as well as a made-to-order platform for Concetta Tomei to play Fallaci’s contradictions to the hilt.
A distinctive and controversial feature of Fallaci’s writing, which has both fascinated and enraged journalists, is the way in which she blurs the interface between factual reportage and fiction. Charlie Rose took her to task on this in a compelling live interview in December 7, 1992 that is, for lack of a better word, magnetizing. When he asks her about her editing, about her “painting the picture as she saw it,” about filtering through her “own imaginative process”…”not putting words in people’s mouths but choosing what words to include and more importantly, what context and what words to leave out” she famously replied– “When you write an article, a reportage, you have to stay within the limits of what has happened, what has been said. You must be very rigorous in reporting without inventing, without distorting, without manipulating. But the better I was in being so rigorously faithful to events, the more I felt like writing with handcuffs. You cannot move, you cannot open your arms you cannot say more–concepts for instance. What literature does is it universalizes the truth and people can recognize it in that story.” Wright cleverly explores this through Maryam’s successive interviews with Fallaci in which Fallaci is shown to have given dramatically different versions of the truth at various points in time, defending them all as fact.
You wouldn’t necessarily recognize Concetta Tomei even if you’d seen her in her recent stand-out performance as Valerie in A.C.T.’s world premiere of Cary Perloff’s Higher at the Children’s Creativity Museum in February 2012. There, she played a wealthy widow who was cunning, strong, very manipulative and funny and, like Fallaci, a part of her was very remote and lonely. At Berkeley Rep, she literally sores as Fallaci and is utterly and convincingly Italian. She plays Fallaci as a diva, one who needs to be coaxed by someone worthy into spilling her fascinating stories and accumulated wisdom and regrets.
Wright also steeps us in Fallaci’s intrepid interview style by having Fallaci dramatically relive some of her most glorious moments with Maryam. Perhaps her most famous interview was with Kohmeini, in 1979, when, after waiting for 10 days in Qum (Iran) for him to agree, she donned a chador and questioned him relentlessly about the treatment of women in his new Islamic state. “How do you swim in a chador?” to which he replied–“If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it…” at which point she yanked off her chador and said “I am going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” When she returned the next day to conclude the interview, he smiled and laughed and Khomeini’s son told Fallaci “I think you are the only person in the world who made him laugh.”
Marjan Neshat, who played Nawal Marwan in A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, last February, is New York Times journalist Maryam and, again, she is embroiled in a difficult situation. She initially visits Fallaci as a naïve obituary writer, there to extract information from Fallaci before she is felled by her rumored cancer. Initially, Fallaci seems guarded, weakened and tired but, instinctively, she knows when to assert herself to maintain the upper hand. As she leaps to her feet to defend a point or shouts over Maryam to make herself heard, we get why there is only one Fallaci. Maryam proves very quick on the uptake though and manages to impress this war horse. Maryam returns three years later, post 9/11, to find Fallaci still very much alive. They discuss Fallaci’s controversial The Rage and the Pride in which the author broke her ten year silence to produce a scathing indictment of Islam. Throughout the course of play, Maryam’s character transitions dramatically. She ultimately becomes a controversial and highly-respected journalist known for her reportage on contemporary Iran. She also attains the savvy and confidence to go head-to-head with Fallaci. By the time the ladies have their last meeting, they are more or less equals, supportive and tender with each other.
After experiencing Fallaci, I went home and pulled out my tattered edition of her magnificent Interview with History. I can well understand Wright’s enduring fascination with Fallaci. Her questions, more authoritative statements than questions, prompted some of the most compelling discussions on record.
Fallaci is completely absorbing and I am going again.
Fallaci runs 90 minutes without intermission.
Details: Fallaci runs through April 21, 2013. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances: Tuesday-Sunday, with additional weekend matinee performances. Tickets: $29 -$89. Call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at www.berkeleyrep.org
Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.
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