Alan Smith, Amir Levy, and Eliud Kauffman in BELLINI AND THE SULTAN.
BOTTOM LINE: A light, fun comedy about crossing cultures that is in need of further development.
The self-proclaimed greatest painter in all of Italy, Gentile Bellini (Alan Smith), is commissioned to paint the portrait of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (Eliud Kauffman). Problem is, painting one's image is idolatry and strictly forbidden. The Sultan's on board, but no one else is, and Bellini's life is in danger. At the same time, the Sultan's newest concubine Hakira (Temi Hason) is actually the Sultan's daughter, and she wants desperately to confess her love to Timotei (Chris Olson) before being condemned to a life of incestuous monogamy. Timotei doesn't know how to love a woman, the Doge expects Bellini to spy on the Turkish naval operation, and Bellini really just misses his wife and daughter back home.
Bellini and the Sultan is a light-hearted romp through colliding cultures. Puns, gags, and pronounced facial expressions broadly beg for laughs. The problem is, this production isn't necessarily a comedy. The humor is obvious, and it's clear that we are seeing, as the subtitle states, "a comedy in Istanbul." But the production itself is staged and presented without any attention to the genre. And when I say comedy, I really mean farce: exaggerated, ridiculous, physical.
It feels like this production instinctively knows this and there are some hints at farce, but it lacks a cohesive vision, which makes it hard for the actors to all be on the same page. What you get from the cast of eight are eight different interpretations of what it means to be big and funny.
The play begins with a joyful dance number which helps to set the scene. This energetic set-up unfortunately never returns. In another iteration of this show, it would be great to see the movement intertwined within the scenes. At its core, Bellini and the Sultan has much potential. And the fact that it's produced by the Turkish American Repertory Theatre also gives it some cultural credibility; the play's historical context is something well worth exploring. It might prove useful in future versions to bring on an outside director who can envision this world anew and offer coherence to the production.
(Bellini and the Sultan plays at the Robert Moss Theatre at 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette Street, through August 24, 2013. Performances are August 23rd at 2:30PM and August 24th at 7PM. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at fringenyc.org or by calling 866-468-7619.)