Take your pick: Hamlet, Lear, Othello or Macbeth. If you're a major character in one of these Shakespearean tragedies, chances are you're going down. Odds of survival are equally grim in George F. Walker's Zastrozzi, The Master of Discipline, now in its Charlotte premiere at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. What makes this 1977 script stand apart from its Elizabethan and Restoration brethren is that Zastrozzi often plays less like a bloodbath and more like a saucy comedy — or like Othello flipped over to Iago's point of view.
Walker loosely based his story on Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1810 novel, so loosely that the playwright is said to have been familiar with Shelley's first published work only through a synopsis. The thread of similarity between the two works, often frayed or broken, is strongest in upholding master criminal Zastrozzi's implacable pursuit of Verezzi. In Shelley's version, the pursuit of Verezzi is pure Italian-style vendetta, for Verezzi is actually not to blame for the death of Zastrozzi's mother.
Here the issue is murkier, for Verezzi did the murder. But the man is insane, a self-proclaimed religious visionary who has no memory of the killing, and he believes that Zastrozzi is a figment of his tutor Victor's imagination. On the other hand, Victor and Verezzi may be creatures who only exist in one of Zastrozzi's chronic nightmares. Fortunately, the pace and zest of all the intricate lusts and conflicts divert us from the mental calisthenics of sorting out truth from illusion.
As the pursuit plays out, queen seductress Matilda tries to interpose herself between Zastrozzi and his vengeful obsession by enflaming his passions. Instead, she enlists in a fiendish scheme to drive Verezzi to suicide by first seducing and then spurning him. Ah, but Zastrozzi and Verezzi are both captivated by Julia, the virginal aristocrat in the tear-away skirt. The underlings further compound the complications. Tired of helping Verezzi elude Zastrozzi — particularly since his mad master sees no need for his help — Victor considers abandoning Verezzi, dissuading Zastrozzi from his vendetta, or murdering the devil. As for the brutish Bernardo, Zastrozzi's tool, he's likely to murder or rape anything on two legs.
Directing, designing lights, and starring in the title role, Tony Wright ably wears a bunch of hats in this engrossing CAST production. Yet Wright's most spellbinding work is undoubtedly his fight choreography, some of the best I've seen anywhere. Not only does accomplished ruffian Lamar Wilson look adept at swordplay as Bernardo, but so do Brian Willard as Victor and Karina Roberts-Caporino as Matilda. On top of that, there is one dandy cat fight near the end of Act 2, with Michelle Busiek as Julia squaring off against Roberts-Caporino.
Adorned in the most outrageous of Rebecca Randolph's flamboyant costume designs, Colby Davis as Verezzi is the only cast member exempt from combat, though he does take a clop to the noggin. Davis gets the heftiest share of the comedy, wide-eyed and innocent, proclaiming his sainthood, as torn between art and religion as he's torn between lust for Matilda and chaste adoration of Julia. A smiling, ecstatic maniac. Roberts-Caporino has her own comic morsels to feast upon as she suddenly finds her infallible seductive charms failing her. Maybe she needs to upgrade her slutty outfit.
Wilson's brutality and bestiality as Bernardo are counterbalanced by Willard's cerebral control and rationality as Victor. It's a disconcerting role, really, for Victor seems to be an iconic coward in Act 1 and quite the man of action after intermission, so it's hard to fault how Wright and Willard are handling the inconsistency. Wright himself struggles at times with the multiple dichotomies of Zastrozzi, who cuts a rather chaste figure for a ravishing desperado, better at the swordplay than the master's cold-blooded indifference.
As a result, Busiek must navigate a unique acting challenge when Zastrozzi ravishes Julia during their first encounter without ever touching her! It's a delicious, weirdly autoerotic scene, and Busiek is yummy throughout. Yet it's just another twist in the emotional and ethical enigma that is Zastrozzi. His actions during the denouement crystallize his complexity and his cold, cosmic perspective — after a final flourish of swashbuckling brio.