By Tom Missel
Content to live literally behind the scenes as a theater professional, Mario Pirovano’s life took a dramatic turn more than 25 years ago when his storytelling mesmerized a group of unruly children at a summer camp in Italy. Other counselors quickly sought out Pirovano to tell his tales to the entire camp.
An actor was born.
Stage lovers owe those rotten kids a debt of gratitude.
The Italian stage star was a frenetic, fantastic delight as he opened his two-month North American tour of “Francis, The Holy Jester” Tuesday evening at St. Bonaventure University’s Quick Center for the Arts.
The performance was the highlight of the university’s Francis Week, which ends today with a 5 p.m. chapel Mass to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis.
Pirovano captivated the standing-room-only audience with his one-man interpretation of Nobel winner Dario Fo’s episodic play about the life of the saint of Assisi.
“Tour de force” gets tossed around as loosely as “heroic” or “superstar,” but it is hard to imagine a human other than Pirovano so fully embracing and expressing the words of the iconoclastic Fo, whose vision of Francis often conflicts with the historical image that’s been molded and reinforced for more than 800 years. Pirovano has worked with Fo for almost 30 years.
The foundations of Fo’s play were the eyewitness narratives and contemporary chronicles of the day, many of which never surfaced until hundreds of years after Francis’ death in 1226.
Fo’s depiction of Francis as a jester wasn’t meant to diminish his life, but to convey how revered he was to the commoners of the day — and how reviled he was by those in power, who feared jesters because of their ability to rally those with no power. Francis even considered himself a jester.
(Ironically, one of Francis’ successors as leader of the Franciscans was Bonaventure, who was ordered to destroy many writings about Francis and then told to author a sanitized biography about him that was more palatable to the church.)
Pirovano portrayed four episodes from Francis’ life — one popular, his taming of the ferocious wolf of Gubbio; and some rarely heard, like his passionate tirade in 1222 to the warring townspeople of Bologna, and Francis’ plea to powerful Pope Innocent III to allow him to preach the gospel to the people in Italian.
Pirovano prefaced each scene with historical — and often hysterical — perspective. His ability to evoke laughter one moment and be thought provoking the very next was remarkable.
A man of 10,000 faces and seemingly as many voice inflections, Pirovano, 62, bounded about the barren, black stage with the athleticism and enthusiasm of a man half his age, jumping so seamlessly from character to character that you often forgot you were watching a one-man show.
Occasionally, “Holy Jester” was like watching a great British film filled with Cockney accents: You’d struggle now and then fully grasping Pirovano’s thick Italian accent, but you always felt totally immersed in what he was conveying.
Comedic highlights included Francis’ recounting of the Marriage at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine for despondent wedding guests; and when the wolf of Gubbio explained to Francis that he once attempted to change his evil ways, “even trying to eat vegetables and roots (instead of people), but after a week I had such diarrhea!”
Dramatically, Pirovano’s caustic, backhanded tirade to the warring people of Bologna was riveting, a monologue that would be as powerful delivered today to gangs in Chicago or border rivals in the Middle East.
The portrayal of Francis’ death was easily the most poignant moment, culminating with Pirovano (as Francis) singing the Canticle of the Sun as he lay staring at the star-lit sky through a hole in the roof of his beloved Porziuncola church in Assisi.
The standing ovation Pirovano received wasn’t merely to pay tribute to his electric, engaging performance, but to thank him for revealing layers of the revered saint so many never knew.
About the University: Inspired for more than 150 years by the Catholic Franciscan values of individual dignity, community inclusiveness, and service, St. Bonaventure University cultivates graduates who are confident and creative communicators, collaborative leaders and team members, and innovative problem solvers who are respectful of themselves, others, and the diverse world around them.