It is no easy task to adapt a beloved text, especially when it is the first new version in more than two decades; audiences will no doubt come with preconceived expectations of characters and scenes they’ve known and loved for years. Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, the Malthouse Theater’s version of Melina Marchetta’s seminal 1992 coming-of-age novel Looking for Alibrandi (also a 2000 cult film) has overcome countless Covid complications to reach the main stage. It retains many of the rhythms of the original, but is best approached as its own beast.
Set in 1990s Sydney, the story follows scholarship student Josephine Alibrandi’s (Chanella Macri) final year of school as she grapples with her Italian heritage and the struggles of her mother, Christina (Lucia Mastrantone) and Nonna Katia (Jennifer Vuletic). ). Writer Vidya Rajan centers the exploration of intergenerational trauma and class disparities in this adaptation. Her balance of humor and empathy, light and shadow, draws the threads that make this such a timeless story.
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Focusing more on the three Alibrandi women means, however, that a few other subplots and characters, including Josie’s estranged father Michael Andretti (Ashley Lyons), fall a bit by the wayside. As a result, the pacing can be a bit choppy, and perhaps because the rehearsal period was shortened, the cast sometimes seem to be finding their groove.
Still, there are excellent performances here. Macri brings a new dimension to Josie: a Western Sydney accent layered on top, she’s bolshie, brash and very, very funny. Frequently breaking the fourth wall, the actor makes the crowd howl with just a slight turn of the head, a subtle facial expression, or a one-liner. But he imposes a reverent silence in the most serious scenes, captivating the audience with grace. In fact, silence is used to great effect in this production: some of the most emotional moments are when Vuletic is featured stirring a pot, or simply staring into the middle distance.
Making bad boy love interest Jacob Coote a person of color (played charmingly by Filipino-Australian actor John Marc Desengano) is a particularly inspired choice, bringing more depth to the character’s underdog story, as well as to his bond with Josie. Macri and Desengano together are a delight to watch: Josie and Jacob’s first kiss, and a steamy bedroom scene set to the soundtrack of Savage Garden’s I Want You, draw the biggest applause of the night.
Most of the actors play multiple roles: Mastrantone is great as Sera, Josie’s chaotic friend, as is the performance in the “Nonna spy ring” production, with actors appearing in costume. This is less effective with the dual cast of Josie’s private school crush kid John Barton and Ivy, both played by Hannah Monson; although Monson plays both roles well, playing John in this way is distracting, visually reminiscent of Amanda Bynes in She Ella’s the Man.
The production is also somewhat disappointed by the staging, which does not change at all times. On a dappled floral carpet, stacked boxes filled with tomatoes line the stage in a semicircle, with a kitchen table in the foreground; this effectively closes the show with the Tomato Day Alibrandi tradition, with passata live on stage. For all other scenes, these props are still visible, and while it highlights the pervasiveness of the domestic setting, it’s not consistent for the entire show. However, the passata is used to great comedic effect during the iconic broken nose scene (if you know, you know).
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Rajan’s writing prowess hits its stride in the show’s second half, dimming the constant laughter of the first act for heavy reveals. One scene, where the three women argue with each other, bristles with the kind of tension that you can only really understand if you’ve been a child of an ethnic family. It’s painfully raw, a visual representation of the myriad ways trauma filters through the generations. Another, in which the grandmother and granddaughter come to understand each other, is beautifully acted. Katia from Vuletic shines in these scenes, showing the weight of years of secrets and the impossibility of erasing the shame. Here it is especially moving to hear the characters speak in Italian, without translating for the audience.
“I will run one day. Run for my life. To be free and think for myself… I will run to emancipate myself”, says Josie in the original text of Marchetta. That emancipation is at the heart of Looking for Alibrandi: the complexities of learning to be true to yourself while also understanding all that it takes to get there. Each version of this classic story has something different to offer, and Rajan’s work deeply explores the generational triptych at its core: three women, three lives, one heartbeat.