Dario d'Ambrosi bobs and weaves, chattering, charming, his dark eyes aglow with unaffected enthusiasm. Across the room, his friend and co-star Stefano Abbati smiles politely, nestles into the couch and closes his eyes. The day before D'Ambrosi had flown from Italy to New York. On this day he has flown from New York to Los Angeles. It's 2 a.m. by Rome time, but D'Ambrosi is eager to talk.
"All of my pieces are about mental (patients)," said the Italian performance artist, who's presenting his "teatro patologico" at Stages in the two-character "Enemy of Mine" ("Nemico Mio"). "For me, it's important to write about the subject. I think there is not much difference between people inside and people outside. We need the mental hospital, we need these people. They are our mirror."
D'Ambrosi, 30, comes by his opinions from personal experience. Ten years ago, he spent two months researching life at a Roman mental institution--from the inside.
"I lived with those people, slept with those people," the performer explained in heavily fractured English. "In this play, these two guys plan to go to the sea. They've been inside for 35 years, and they've never seen the sea in their lives--never. But they talk about it as if they go there every summer. For them, the sea is like liberty."
D'Ambrosi himself found re-entering the real world after his self-imposed confinement "very difficult."
He eased the transition by beginning to write about the experience; since then he's established the Pathological Theatre International Festival in Milan--and set up his own performance space within the psychiatric institute. He's also taken his work on the road: Last year "Enemy of Mine" played at New York's Lincoln Center and La Mama, at Chicago's Organic Theatre and Cleveland's Public Theatre.
D'Ambrosi admits that theater (which he blithely dismisses as "the most boring thing in the world") wasn't his first career choice. Soccer was.
"My father didn't like soccer; he never liked anything I did," he said coolly. "I started going to theater school in Milan--maybe to escape my family situation." It was during his time at theater school that d'Ambrosi began to explore life in mental institutions. It convinced him that theater was what he wanted to do. It provided an escape. "I said (to my family): 'I don't want to work with my father anymore. I don't want the life I had before.' Theater was something to save my life. You see, I had so much anger inside of me; I was very violent when I was growing up."
It's not something that appears to have vanished completely. "I always dreamed to play soccer," he said reverently. "I go to the soccer stadium every Sunday, after the mental hospital. It's the one place I can really feel good. I \o7 like\f7 the violence at the stadium--not people (actually) killing each other, but (a place where people) can really yell. It's important to explode with your anger."
He's less forgiving of the aggression he's seen in mental hospitals-- both Italian and American. "We think (these hospitals) are terrible in Italy," d'Ambrosi grimaced, "but in the United States it's not much better. Maybe worse. There's so much violence. Where I stayed there was this guy, Maurizio, an incredible person. Every day I'd ask him how many children he had and he'd say, '1,340,000--and I love them and take care of them all.' He'd talk about the sun and moon and stars, incredible fantasies. One day, they beat him. The next day I asked him how many children he had, but he just sat there. They cut the legs off every time the mind tries to fly."
D'Ambrosi admits the hopelessness often gets him down.
"But in another way, I want to be optimistic. I talk to the young people--under 16--at the mental hospital. They all have incredible problems with their parents. (Their illness) is not casual; there's a reason they're sick, schizophrenic, have so much anger. They weren't born angry. There's a reason people flip out. So many have this sickness, but there aren't many people who want to take care of them. In the future, I hope (society) can. For that reason, we work, travel, and go crazy doing our job."
The metaphor is apt; activism and art often make comely bedfellows. "Both mental people and actors want to escape from reality," D'Ambrosi said with a smile. "We just try to fly in different ways."