Napoli Milionaria!

Italy, World War II and the Black Market   

Stratford Festival has billed Napoli Milionaria! as “a sparkling and warm-hearted comedy”, but the description needs to be more specific.  Perhaps Act I is a comedy, but I still wouldn’t describe it as “sparkling”.  And Act II and Act III are not comedies.  The story turns tragic, giving off a feeling of hopelessness.  That’s not to say it isn’t an excellent production – it is.  But don’t go looking for laugh-out-loud moments.  It is, after all, based in World War II Italy, when things were not funny.

It is interesting in that Napoli Milionaria! was written at the time in which it is set.  Not too often do writers, who are living in the heart of a war torn city, have the time to sit down and tell the tale as it is happening.  The story runs from 1942 to 1944.  When Act I begins, we are taken back to Naples, Italy just two years after Dictator Benito Mussolini makes good on his pact with Germany and declares war on Britain and France.  As a result, the city of Naples is being bombed by American and British forces, with the Neapolitans heading into shelters to sit out the attacks.  Food is rationed and life is difficult.

The father of the family, Gennero, is jaded and unhappy, seemingly fed up with war and people’s attitudes.  His wife, Amalia, on the other hand, is an opportunist.  She finds ways to track down coffee, flour, or sugar on the black market and she profits on the shortages, offering groceries at high prices to neighbours.  The daughter, Maria, is not happy about stretching the already diluted coffee grounds to serve customers by the cup in their small apartment.  The son, Amadeo, works at a menial job which he doesn’t enjoy.  But the family’s back-and-forth banter makes for funny moments, particularly the comments coming from the curmudgeonly father.  In one hilarious scene, Gennero plays dead in bed when the police brigadier visits in an attempt to track down the black market foods, which happen to be hidden in the mattress.

In Act II, Gennero is lost in the war, as the Americans and British forces advance north in Italy.  But back home, Amalia, makes a fortune in the black market.  The dark apartment is remodelled, with new ornate furniture and a beautiful chandelier.  She has a business partner, with whom she becomes very close, almost to the point of having an affair, as she begins to believe her husband is dead, after his long absence.  When he finally returns home, no one wants to hear about the horrors he faced.  He is shocked that they are living happy lives in luxury while war continues nearby.

Then things turn very dark in Act III, when their small daughter is very ill, and they can’t get the penicillin needed to save her life.  Despite Amalia’s ability to find things in the black market, she is unable to get the medicine.  In a surprise plot twist, we can only hope the daughter will recover.

During the two intervals, the action on stage is as interesting as the performance.  A cast of actors, dressed as friends and neighbours, come in to help rearrange furniture, tear down walls, and renovate the apartment.

Directed by Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, this play gives him the opportunity to incorporate his Italian heritage.  In the program, he talks about travelling to Naples in advance of this play, and speaking with his cab driver in Italian.  The cabbie was proud of the local playwright and his works.  Cimolino deserves credit for bringing this slice of history to life 70 plus years later.

Tom McCamus, as Gennero, is brilliant, as always.  In Act I, we wonder if he is shell-shocked from World War I, but after he experiences World War II, he becomes the character with the most common sense. McCamus lets the audience feel what Gennero feels, and takes us on the journey with him.

Napoli Milionaria! is a fascinating story that takes us from comedy to tragedy in three acts.  For those interested in World War II history, it gives a fascinating first-hand account of the war’s effect on civilian families.

Napoli Milionaria! continues in repertory until October 27 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford.  Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca

Photo: Brigit Wilson as Amalia and Tom McCamus as Gennaro in Napoli Milionaria! Photo by David Hou.

Napoli Milionaria!
By Eduardo de Filippo
In a new translation by John Murrell
From a literal translation by Donato Santeramo
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Performed by Shruti Kothari, Jonathan Sousa, Tom McCamus, Brigit Wilson, et al.
Produced by Stratford Festival
Avon Theatre, Stratford
August 17 to October 27, 2018
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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