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[whitespace] Donny Campodonico, Jim Johnson High Notes: Donny Campodonico (left) and Jim Johnson mangle Mozart in 'Cosí.'

Photograph by Dennis Rosenberg

One Flew Over Mozart

Mental patients mount an opera in City Lights' production of 'Cosí'

By Heather Zimmerman

The performing arts and insanity seem something of a natural combination--after all, the profession of acting has, justly or not, gained a reputation for dueling egos and exquisitely delicate psyches.

Australian playwright Louis Nowra discovered how closely linked creativity and thinking differently, so to speak, could be when he directed an operetta in a mental institution in the early '70s, an experience on which he based his comedy, Cosí. City Lights Theater Company heralds the holidays with this tale of inmates who run not only the asylum--breaking out of wards, stealing medication and setting fires--but the stage too.

In 1971 Melbourne, Lewis (Donny Campodonico) is a recent college grad who gets hired to direct a play at an asylum. With Lewis' arrival, Roy (Jim Johnson), a patient with a passion for theater, sees a chance to finally realize his dream of performing Mozart's opera Cosí Fan Tutte.

Roy may be the acknowledged blowhard of the D Ward, but his powers of persuasion are sufficient to sucker Lewis into directing an opera for a cast of six mental patients, some of whom can barely bring themselves to speak, let alone sing opera. His performers also include blissed-out drug addict Julie (Joann Carbonara); Cherry (Christy Holy), an overly sexual and overly maternal woman (named a bit too ironically for my taste); shell-shocked Henry (Ross Nelson); pyromaniac Doug (Jason Storm); the creatively and pharmaceutically inclined Zac (Matthew Olsem); and reality fanatic Ruth (JennieRae Orlando).

Such a comedy thrives on all hell breaking loose, but fortunately, director Rob Hamilton doesn't let the play's many scenes of chaos dissolve into too much of it. He generally achieves a kind of controlled bedlam in the cast members' many snafus, which include Doug starting fires and Julie and Cherry squaring off over Lewis' affections.

But even as Lewis struggles to keep control in rehearsal, he's the only character not engulfed by an obsession, addiction or even any strong beliefs, unlike his radical activist friends Nick (Christopher Shore) and Lucy (Carbonara), who are feverishly organizing to send aid to the Viet Cong.

Campodonico gives an accordingly grounded performance, making Lewis the sole anchor amid the patients' various passions and his friends' politicking. Johnson offers a nice foil to Lewis as the maddening master thespian Roy, who is a willing slave to his own "artistic vision."

Not surprisingly, the play's climactic scene--the actual performance of Cosí Fan Tutte--doesn't really yield any riotous comedy. So much wildness has built up to it that the production itself seems comparatively sane. And of course, that's partly the point: this is where Nowra gets in some good news about the therapeutic properties of theater, and why not?--the arts can always use more good press.

But more subtly, Nowra also uses the theme of Mozart's opera, which makes claims about the faithlessness of all women, to illustrate a major theme of Cosí. After a fight with his girlfriend over her penchant for free love, the otherwise calm and cautious Lewis reiterates the sentiments of the 18th-century opera.

The contrast of such overly dramatic words from such a usually collected fellow helps drive home the play's argument against extremism of any kind. Known for choosing plays that don't shy away from extreme or unpopular stances, City Lights might not seem the obvious choice to stage a play that preaches moderation, however discreetly, but happily, this production is just crazy enough.

Cosí plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St, San Jose. Tickets are $15-$18. (408.295.4200)

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From the December 2-8, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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