We are queuing to enter the prison-correction facility, I am not sure what is the appropriate way of calling it these days, the building is surrounded by a high metal fence, there are lamps on each corner, it is in the outskirts of Larino, a town half an hour by car away from Termoli, where I usually live. The guards start letting people in, it becomes clear we need to leave our smartphones at the entrance, we hand it to the closest guard which proceeds to pass it on to the next guard that puts it in a manila envelope, staples it close, and handwrites our names on it.
We are now in an outside area that still isn’t the penitentiary, although there is a guard with a different uniform and has huge golden keys hanging from his belt at the back, it looks theatrical and unnaturally big for a key lock. Someone jokes about Alcatraz, we have all seen those US movies and TV series like Prison Break, but we are very much in Southern Italy with oleander trees and crickets sounds.
The female director of the prison can be spotted among the visitors because she is the only one clutching a phone and greets warmly the guests. There is someone I know in the audience who asks me: “First time here?” I respond: “Do you mean in prison or at the theatre?”
A play is the reason why around 100 people between kids, families, young and old people, are waiting to go in and watch Snow White. The project is the result of the engagement of people inside and outside the facility and the play is directed by Giandomenico Sale, who has been doing this for a while but, like everyone else, has been stopped for the past two years by the pandemic.
It is time to enter, we move as a swarm, a big creaky red metal door opens to let us in, we cross some kind of passageway and then the gate closes through an automatic system behind us, we are in the courtyard, it looks both alien and quite cozy.
There is someone waiting for us, we are standing in an impromptu circle, he styles a big cartoonish tie and round glasses, he reads from a document: it is the beginning of the Grimm’s fairytale updated to current times and circumstances, going all of 180 degrees from ancient greek theatre played all by men, now all inmates, their surnames erased with pen on the playbill.
After the speaker, another character enters the scene, he’s wearing a shiny jacket, he turns out to be the embodiment of the mirror, which he proceed to reflect a small round mirror towards us as in a liturgy. Addressing the mirror though is the claim of the Queen, who styles a bustier and an amazing orange wig. She speaks in Neapolitan rhyme, in the local tradition of hyper-feminine male characters known as “femminielli”, call it drag queen if you follow Ru Paul’s globally televised race. I caught at the corner of my eye, although the light was setting, the movement of someone wearing a white robe, The figure is gracefully running around, or should I say more escaping the hunter that has been ordered by the evil queen to kill her. Super catchy pop music anthems, like Staying alive make you move and sing along even if you try to resist the rhythm, accompany the action. We go to the seats and look at the stage which develops in front of a short building: some cheerful individuals from cap to shorts all wearing different uniforms of American basketball teams (Celtics, Lakers…), are none other than… the Seven Dwarfs! The brilliant music choices as well as the uniforms I believe have the input of American choreographer Richard Move who came from New York to Molise to work on this hopeful project with Sale.
We know how the rest of the story goes, the poisoned apple, the sleep and … here comes Prince Charming, sporting a Tony Manero white suit, cigarette in his mouth, sunglasses and the entrance of a true dance floor hero. It is pretty entertaining and even the kids seem to have a good time, it finishes sooner than I wanted and people clap and clap some more, laughing and cheering the cast. There is some food been offered to the guests so people can chat and mingle, the actors are among us but they have taken off their costumes with the exception of the dwarfs that seem to be at ease in their jerseys. it is nice to be together, in the moment, with no phones, no distraction, cola and ginger instead of alcohol. The other inmates, not part of the show, whistle at a distance. When we leave, I wonder if the memory of the night will give me and them something to look forward to, like a kiss that will awaken those among us in limbo.
Caterina Riva 2022