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Roberto Benigni makes his New York stage debut

June 1, 2009 |  3:25 pm

Roberto Benigni Roberto Benigni made his New York stage debut in a one-person show, “Tutto Dante,” Saturday night in front of a sold-out audience that, not surprisingly, drew a number of celebrities whose last names end in vowels: Isabella Rossellini, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Elvis Costello, as well as Jim Jarmusch, and Julie Taymor with longtime partner, composer Elliot Goldenthal.

Those who were expecting the giddy clown of  his Oscar-winning 1997 film "Life Is Beautiful" would have been largely disappointed, although there were glimpses of that persona  in the first part of the two-hour show, a poetic analysis of Canto V of Dante's "Inferno."  

“I want to wag my tail like a dog and kiss each and every one of you for coming,” he said as he took to the stage, apologizing for his poor English and acknowledging his chutzpah for taking on the task.  “It is like if Jim Carrey would be talking about Walt Whitman in Rome in Italian.”  

As the text for the evening was Dante’s meditation on the circle of hell reserved for the lustful, the small-framed Italian took the opportunity first to skewer Italian culture and politics. Wielding a microphone in front of a giant white screen that later would be used to project the English translation of the Canto, the leftist Benigni made mincemeat of Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi. For those who haven't been following media reports, Berlusconi has been the subject of his own opera buffo involving “barely legal” teens and a wife out to publicly humiliate and divorce him.  “His is a barely legal government,” Benigni quipped.  

All of this was a preface of sorts to the lecture, through which Benigni conveyed not only the poem’s revolutionary status (the invention of dozens of words, the first use in literature of “I,” the modernity of style and content) but also the empathy of the humanist author for the poor trapped souls, especially the star-crossed Paolo and Francesca. Imagine your favorite college professor vivifying a class of world lit with passion, wit and intelligence.

Benigni, who is in the midst of a short world tour -- which will include stops in Boston and Chicago and conclude in Buenos Aires this month -- ended with a coup de grace.  He hauntingly recited the poem by heart in its original medieval Italian with so much emotion that he seemed on the verge of breaking down. 

 The capacity crowd in New York rewarded Benigni with an enthusiastic standing ovation. He tours the show in his native country -- in his native language -- throughout next fall.

-- Patrick Pacheco

Caption: Roberto Benigni in an earlier performance of his one-man show. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency.