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Onwards and Upwards opens with audience members seated on metal folding chairs placed in a rough circle next to the kitchen in East Passyunk’s History of Italian Immigration Museum. As they wait, the harmonious sound of Antonello Di Matteo’s Italian bagpipes begins to waft from the basement stairs. It’s a wonderful prelude, until you realize that underneath it someone is shouting lines in Italian down a neighboring hallway. Incomprehensibly, the play has begun.
Written by Angelo Aiello of Company Aiello, Onwards and Upwards ostensibly narrates the Italian-American immigrant experience through the eyes of Spazzolino, a wooden puppet setting sail for the United States at some point likely in the early 1900s. For the duration of the play Spazzolino speaks only in Italian, with accompanying narration provided in English by Aaron Roberge.
Spazzolino is a charming guide, expressively carved and masterfully voiced by Aiello. Unfortunately, exactly what he is guiding the audience through quickly becomes unclear: after the confusing introduction, any potential plot seems to be abandoned in favor of a walking tour of the museum.
Where’d you go?
This presents its own challenges. The museum is small and full of trifolds packed with family photos and display cases of old belongings — pasta makers, tomato presses, barbershop paraphernalia — that make movement difficult. Twice, in the middle of the play, audience members are instructed by museum director and producer Marco Circelli (who has somehow crept up from behind) to take a moment to look at the artifacts on display.
Self-guided tour concluded, audience members are directed to return their attention to the play, where Spazzolino has suddenly abandoned us for the final act — the ten-minute tale of an immigrant named Maria as she flees an unnamed place, crosses a desert, reaches a refugee camp, then finally resigns herself to the release of death at sea. Aiello’s masterful puppeteering now animates Golem-esque figures cobbled together from garbage, plastic, tape, bags, bits of yarn. The way they move is captivating and vaguely disgusting, and this final segment has the potential to be…something. Instead, it is undermined by the weakness of the parts which proceed it and abruptly ends. Circelli claps his hands. The play is finished. Audience members are invited to return to the folding chairs, have a cup of coffee, and talk about their families’ own immigrant roots.
Overall, it’s clear that Aiello, Circelli, and Roberge are all engaged in the performance, but the play’s bilingual script and meandering narrative carelessly leave viewers adrift. Even Roberge’s charismatic stage presence can’t hide an unfamiliarity with his lines, and Circelli’s interjections undermine any shred of the third wall. Abandoned even by Spazzolino, in the end Aiello is left carrying the performance, alone but for the lilting trill of Di Matteo’s clarinet.
What, When, Where
Onwards and Upwards: The Italian American Dream. By Angelo Aiello. Directed by Angelo Aiello and Marco Circelli. Filitalia International & Company Aiello. Through September 8, 2018, at the History of Italian Immigration Museum, 1834 East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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