I saw the Roundabout’s production of The Rose Tattoo yesterday. If you ever thought of The Rose Tattoo as minor Tennessee Williams, this production will disabuse you of that notion. It’s gorgeous, tense, funny, sexy, heartbreaking, chilling. I loved everything about it. Marisa Tomei will knock your socks off.
Seeing it on Columbus Day weekend heightened the immigration politics in the play for me. It's set in a community of Italian immigrants on the Gulf Coast in the 1950s. There aren’t many white people in the story, but the ones there are don’t much like or respect the Italians.
There's a character called The Strega (the witch) who lives next door. I don’t know if Williams specifies her ethnicity in the text, but in this production she’s clearly a white lady in contrast to the Italian-Americans at the center of the story. The Strega mostly lurks in the periphery, but from time to time she steps out and addresses the audience with bigoted comments on the main action. The audience we saw it with laughed with her. Not at her. Their laughter seemed to me to indicate clear identification with The Strega’s view. (Were the character Italian, her comments would of course sound very different, and mean something different, in that context.)
It almost felt like a test. The character is played by Constance Shulman (my husband tells me she’s well known from Orange Is The New Black) who delivers these lines with sharp comic timing, so you know they’re jokes, but they seem to have no other content besides ridicule. They’re only funny if you find Italians laughable.
If it was a test, the audience failed it. Their laughter was shocking and creepy.