Review: ‘Margherita’ presented by Seventh Street Playhouse at Greenbelt Arts Center

Margherita by Anthony E. Gallo, presented by the Seventh Street Playhouse at the Greenbelt Arts Center under the direction of Beatrix Whitehall, is a drama about the long extramarital relationship between Benito Mussolini (Bob Cohen) and Margherita Sarfatti (Emily Canavan), a Jewish patron of the arts. This liaison lasted over twenty years.

Margherita Sarfatti (Emily Canavan) and Benito Mussolini (Bob Cohen) in Margherita, now playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center. Photo by Sam Simon.
Margherita Sarfatti (Emily Canavan) and Benito Mussolini (Bob Cohen) in Seventh Street Playhouse’s production of Margherita, now playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center. Photo by Sam Simon.

As Mussolini rose to power it was Sarfatti who was at his side as he went from socialism during the early 1900s to fascism in the 1920s. She wrote the biography of him that made him palatable to England and America. She converted to Catholicism as her lover began to turn on the Jewish population of Italy. In the end, however, with the alliance of Il Duce to Hitler, she still remained part of the Jewish problem and fled Italy for South America for her own safety. Sarfatti remained there until after the war, returning to Italy.

Sarfatti was also clever enough to keep all Mussolini’s love letters, numbering in the thousands. The plot of the play revolves around the existence of these letters, which have resurfaced as a major embarrassment to Mussolini if exposed. Margherita is planning her escape as the play opens, Benito wants the letters and tries to rekindle their passion in an effort to reclaim them. It is not clear how much either loves the other anymore–or if they ever did. Both had many affairs during the time of their involvement. Both were married to others and had families. It is obvious who has the power now in the relationship. Il Duce controls her travel, phone, and even her household staff.  The only power she has is their past, and the only proof of that is these letters.

Canavan competently plays Margherita. We sense her fear and urgency to leave Rome for safer environs. We see her fear rising ever time she realizes how much Mussolini now has control of her life and her family’s. She is in sheer panic when her daughter is arrested.

Cohen is a forceful Mussolini. He shows his complex feeling for his former lover, maybe also toward the Jewish population in Italy. He owes her part of his fame, but he also wants to keep hidden that part of his past.

James McDaniel does an excellent job as Major Klemmer, a former student of the arts who had a brief romantic encounter with Margherita in Germany in the late 1920s. He is now an officer in the German army assigned to escort her out of Italy–or will he?

Margherita Sarfatti (Emily Canavan) and Major Klemmer (James McDaniel) in Margherita, now playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center. Photo by Sam Simon.
Margherita Sarfatti (Emily Canavan) and Major Klemmer (James McDaniel) in Margherita, now playing at the Greenbelt Arts Center. Photo by Sam Simon.

Samuel Simon plays James Bullock, an American who is a supposedly a reporter for the Washington Post. He also does a fine job allowing us to see why he really is a very suspicious character.

Gallo’s play shows great knowledge of the two historical figures, even if he occasionally takes dramatic license. The dialogue between Benito and Margherita is what makes this play work so well.

Whitehall’s direction creates some memorable mind photographs. Amid a very sparse set with a minimal amount of furniture and pictures, she moves the actors around to keep the action moving and visually interesting.

I would have liked a real set. The black walls were almost a distraction at times. This is the home of a wealthy (or at least formerly wealthy) woman who is a patron of the arts. There is a love scene that takes place on the floor.  A rug at least for the comfort of the actors would have been a nice addition.

However, the star of the show is the rise of fascism in Europe in the 20th century. It allows us to see how a person, or a population, can be duped through propaganda, scapegoating and a charismatic figure. Mussolini never kept his affairs a secret.  He was strung up with his new mistress, not his wife. It was only through control of the press and having key people who extolled his virtues (like Margherita) to the public that he was able to get and keep his power.

Margherita is an important play for our time. The analogies to those in power today are obvious. It should not be missed.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Margherita, a 7th Street Playhouse production, plays July 20-29, 2018, at Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call (301) 441-8770 or go online.