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The Italian actress Eleonora Duse passed into legend long before dying, as did the French-born Sarah Bernhardt, her chief rival and competitor. Both Duse and Bernhardt made silent films near the end of their respective lives. It is somewhat difficult to get a sense of Bernhardt’s artistry from a primitive picture like Queen Elizabeth (1912), where the camera stays at a distance from her and we cannot hear her voice. But in Duse’s one film appearance, in 1917’s Cenere (which translates as Ashes), there are roughly ten or so minutes where you can see everything that has been written about this woman’s genius: her powerful concentration, her ability to use physical stillness to draw you into her emotions, the legato beauty of her emotional transitions.
Duse is still alive for us in Cenere, and also in the plentiful reported coverage of her life in the theater, but her writer lover, Gabriele D’Annunzio — who was hugely famous in his native Italy during his lifetime — is mainly known now for his connection to Duse. Brandon Cole first began writing a play based on the end of the affair between Duse and D’Annunzio in the Eighties; it later became the basis for the 1998 film Illuminata, which was directed by Cole’s friend and collaborator John Turturro. Illuminata has a wider scope than Cole’s play and a lighter tone, and though it was successful on its own terms, Cole felt the need to stage his original, in 2000. This production received some positive notice, yet Cole was still not satisfied with the results, and so now the piece is being presented again in a revised version.
When the red curtain at the Connelly Theater is pulled open at the start of this iteration of Imperfect Love, we see the two characters based on Duse and D’Annunzio caught in the middle of an argument. It is 1899, and the tempestuous actress Eleonora Della Rosa (Cristina Spina) has been crucified in the reviews of a new play written by her lover, Gabriele Torrisi (Rodrigo Lopresti). The looming figure of Ibsen and his controversial play A Doll’s House signals that the heroic dramas of Torrisi and D’Annunzio have gone out of fashion. The love affair between Della Rosa and Torrisi is also coming to a close, both because the two are moving apart artistically, and because Torrisi has been making overtures to Sarah Bernhardt. (In real life, Duse made her final break with D’Annunzio because he offered his new play to Bernhardt rather than to her.)
All these elements make for a rich subject for a play, but this production of Imperfect Love feels presentational, inert, and underpopulated. Cole has two performers, named Marco (Ed Malone) and Beppo (David O’Hara), function as clown figures commenting on the sidelines, and Della Rosa’s vain leading man, Domenica (Aidan Redmond), stalks around the stage looking self-important, but these characters add little to the main drama between Della Rosa and Torrisi. The actors here are all in their own worlds, not listening to one another closely enough, and they play too often on one note without change or variation. Sometimes the writing can be monotone as well: Della Rosa refers to Sarah Bernhardt as a “slut” several times, when once or twice would have sufficed.
The staging, by director Michael Di Jiacomo, is static, with the five actors placed like figures in a painting. Nothing seems to be happening onstage, even when a great deal is supposed to be occurring in Cole’s text, which comes to a dramatic conclusion that would be very effective if it were led up to and played with the right passion and irony. Imperfect Love seeks to illuminate a dramatic turning point for Duse and for the theater as an art form, but this production conveys that momentous event — as with most of the occurrences it depicts — in a stiff and unconvincing manner.