nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 5, 2012
Jack Kerouac-style beat poetry meets Grand Guignol horror theater in Barbicide, the new play by Sean Pomposello that is premiering at the Players Theatre under the auspices of The Theatre Project. The poetry is what makes this show not just distinctive but quite awesomely entertaining, along with the performances of a superb cast, headed by the enormously talented Arthur Aulisi in no fewer than four roles.
Barbicide re-tells the tale of Sweeney Todd—now most famous as the basis for a Sondheim musical, though a staple of the horror circuit for nearly two centuries now (check out the Wikipedia article for a recounting of some of the forms it has taken over the years). Pomposello sets his version in Queens, New York, in 1964, at the time of the World's Fair. Toddesco is an Italian barber returning to his old neighborhood in Flushing after 20 years in the state penitentiary. He was framed for murder by a local gangster known as "The Judge" who had coveted Toddesco's beautiful wife Lucia. Toddesco's daughter, Jo, is now The Judge's ward and soon-to-be-wife. But Toddesco has revenge on his mind, and when he teams up with Ms. Lionetti, who runs the pizza parlor below his former barber shop, a grotesque and horrifying tale of vengeance and murder unfolds.
Pomposello's rendition is quite faithful to the story told in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical; if you know it well, you won't find much surprising here, plot-wise. The delight instead comes from seeing the ingenious and clever ways that the details have been mapped to the milieu of Barbicide. And for the many people in the audience on the night I attended who didn't know the story, there were clearly plenty of moments of surprise and shock.
Pomposello's language in this play is gorgeous—vivid and imagistic, but entirely true to the earthy Italian Americans who populate the tale.
Either Pomposello or director Christian Amato or both came up with the novel idea to have just four actors perform the play, and the double casting is designed to provide the two leading actors with tour de force material. Douglas Sharf plays Ant Knee (say it out loud), a former sailor who befriends Toddesco on the Greyhound Bus back to NYC from Upstate, and also Toby, a street kid who works for a rival barber named Porello. Aulisi plays not only Toddesco but also his nemesis The Judge, along with The Judge's assistant (a goon named The Gooch) and the just-mentioned Porello. I have been a huge Arthur Aulisi fan for more than a decade now, but I've never seen him have the opportunity to show as much range and depth as he gets here in Barbicide. It's a magisterial performance by one of indie theater' great unsung heroes, and I hope a lot of people will get a chance to see it.
Which is not meant to take anything away from the skillful Sharf; or from Paulette Oliva, who plays the pragmatic Ms. Lionetti as well as a local Beggar Woman; or Angie Atkinson, who portrays Jo with far more street smarts and self-reliance than I was expecting. This is a fine cast, and they serve Pomposello's characters and poetry well.
The show is performed on a unit set (uncredited) that works well; lighting by Rachel Sevedge and costumes by Brianna Hurley are outstanding. I wished that the transitions between scenes were quicker, though; each act is broken up into numerous segments, and the moments between them felt longer than they needed to.
But that's a quibble; I had a blast at Barbicide, really enjoying the craft of Pomposello's script and the expertise of Amato's cast. Whether or not this is your first encounter with Sweeney Todd AKA Toddesco, there will be plenty to ignite the giddy impulse we all share to get spooked.