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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: May 31, 2017

‘Oriana’s Eyes’ is an intimate portrait of an imperfect woman

Written by: Bob Keyes
Jackie Oliveri and Seth Rigoletti star in "Oriana's Eyes," opening Thursday at the St. Lawrence Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Smoke & Bubbles Productions.

Jackie Oliveri, the of star in “Oriana’s Eyes,” with playwright Sandro Sechi.
Photo courtesy of Smoke & Bubbles Productions.

When Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci died in 2006, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger told the New York Times that his experience with Fallaci was “the most disastrous conversation I ever had with any member of the press.” The headline on the story described her as an “incisive” reporter who was unafraid of asking hard questions of hardened people.

She interviewed the world’s most famous and infamous men and women: Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and India’s prime minster Indira Gandhi.

Her former assistant, Sandro Sechi, now lives in Portland and has co-written a play about Fallaci called “Oriana’s Eyes.” The play, written with Jennifer Slack-Eaton, is based on the book that Sechi wrote chronicling his experience as Fallaci’s assistant. Sechi worked for Fallaci at the end of her life, joining her in New York in 2004.

The play premieres Thursday and runs though June 11 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. It stars Jackie Oliveri as Fallaci and Seth Rigoletti as Sechi, with a supporting case of five.

Sechi and Slack-Eaton are co-directing and producing the play under the auspices of Portland’s newest theater company, Smoke & Bubbles Productions. It will specialize in original plays.

“Oriana’s Eyes” takes a timely look at racism, aging and love. When Sechi worked for Fallaci, she had become Islamophobic and, after Sept. 11, wrote three books speaking out against Islam. She was dying of cancer and living in isolation in New York City, and her hateful writing left her further exiled and frightened for her life.

Jackie Oliveri as Oriana's Fallaci. Photo courtesy of Smoke & Bubbles Production.

Jackie Oliveri as Oriana’s Fallaci.
Photo courtesy of Smoke & Bubbles Production.

The play’s title references the intimacy of the complicated relationship between Fallaci and Sechi. When the cancer leaves Fallaci sightless, Sechi became her eyes, taking her to doctor appointments, cooking with her and helping her to write again. She’s also homophobic, and Sechi is gay. Still, he stands with her. “I love her,” his character says in the play. “She’s a very good person. She’s a loving person.”

The play began as a memoir, which Sechi published in 2006. He turned it into a screenplay because there were prospects for a movie, though the movie never materialized. With the screenplay in hand, the play followed. It’s a two-act play about aging and the decisions people make at the end of their lives.

Sechi and Slack-Eaton were motivated to collaborate after the November presidential election. “November was a disaster for our moods,” Sechi said. “We realized, we have to do it now.”

To recruit actors, Sechi and Slack-Eaton attended performances of the Portland Crowbait Club, a monthly gathering of playwrights and actors. Sechi and Slack-Eaton showed up on a night Oliveri was performing. “The first time she got up on stage, we knew we had our Oriana,” Sechi said.

Oliveri was startled to be asked to audition to portray a woman she knew nothing about and had never heard of. She did some research, and also called Reza Jalali, coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine. Oliveri wanted his input, because she was alarmed at some of the anti-Islamic things Fallaci wrote. In the play, she says, “They are trying to take over Europe, and if America is not careful, they’ll take over America.”

Of Sept. 11, she says, “The American dream is over. It ended that day. Welcome to the American nightmare.”

Oliveri was relieved when Jalali told her he had read all of Fallaci’s books and assured her that she accomplished a lot of good in her life before she turned vitriolic and anti-Islamic.

Fallaci was born in 1929 in Florence and became a lookout for the Italian Resistance by age 10. She covered wars in Vietnam and South America, and was shot three times and left for dead during clashes in Mexico City before the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Rigoletti hasn’t acted in eight years. He was drawn back to the stage by the script and his friendship with the character he portrays. The material, he said, “is amazing stuff. Sandro’s capacity for love and compassion is both instructive and intimidating, and the writing allows for these deep emotional experiences into his character. The experience has been cathartic.”

Rigoletti took it as a joke when Sechi asked him to audition. Working on the play, he said, has been richly rewarding and humbling. “I am awestruck by the talent in the room. Working with Jackie is disorienting because I can easily find myself becoming a spectator during a scene with her, she is so magnetic and powerful. The character of Sandro is all about giving and giving, which is easy for me because everything I give to Jackie, she turns to gold,” he said.

Proceeds from the play will benefit the Southern Maine Agency on Aging and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.

“Oriana’s Eyes” by Smoke & Bubbles Productions

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. June 8, 9, 10 and 2 p.m. June 11
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $25 and $50; pay-what-you-can June 4 and June 11;

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