nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 17, 2008
Piccola Cosi, a one-woman show created by writer/performer Aja Nisenson, directed by Elliott B. Quick, charts Aja's eight-month excursion as a 21-year-old student "through the underbelly of Bologna's jazz scene." She dares in Italy what she hadn't dared do in the States—sing jazz. An opening video shows the streets and residents of an Italian city. "Italy plays back in my mind like a movie," Aja begins.
An opera student who limited her jazz to the shower, Aja steps into a cave-like club in Bologna. Presenting herself as an American singer, she asks to sing with the band. "Little did I know that singing jazz was the gateway to meeting men, and meeting men was the gateway to singing jazz." A shy virgin whom American boys had overlooked, she's shocked that in Italy, "guys thought I was sexy, even with my sneakers, and for the first time, I let them." She learns to revel in their predatory attention, connecting the release of her jazz artistry with the release of her sexuality.
Aja's maiden voyage into the sea of jazz features a fractured version of "My Funny Valentine"—at first belted in high-octave soprano—interspersed with her inner monologue. ("Smile, it's not a fuckin' funeral!" "Is that man staring at my boobs?") Over time she gains composure, scatting, faking lyrics, dancing, flirting, and stylizing through jazz standards such as "Makin' Whoopee," "Night and Day," "Take the A Train," "Paper Moon," "Besame Mucho," and "I'm Through with Love."
She intercuts these songs and song snippets with acting out humorous portrayals of Italian men, nearly all of them rough-voiced Lotharios with twisted faces. A few unique phrases and twitches barely distinguish one man from another. Her boyfriend, jazz guitarist Carlo, uses heroin, drenches her with ravenous kisses, and owns a jealous cat named Ciccio. She's approached or pursued by other men, including guitarist Dominico ("His breath smelled of cigarettes, red wine, and jazz"), Andrea, who invites her to his place "to sing," and Riccardo, who takes her to dinner and paws her for dessert.
Nisenson's story captures the excitement and danger of coming of age as an artist and as a woman on her own. She portrays well her own bewilderment and growing confidence, as well as the fascination and lust of the men she encounters (although I wonder if too many of these men fall into stereotype). Her singing is expressive and sensual, with a beautiful tone. She's backed by three excellent musicians: pianist Alex Clifford, bassist Pete O'Connell, and drummer Nat Seelen.
I saw this show twice. The first time, the pianist had gotten stuck on the G train, and the video failed. That show ended in a weird place, abruptly and violently. At the second show, the pianist played, the videos worked, and the singer performed an encore—more satisfying, less abrupt. After that first time, I cried—not immediately, but in the street. I cried over risk, over sexuality, over danger as success and safety as failure, over being a woman and an artist. Isn't that what theatre does at its best—cut you to the core?