The cast of the Sun & Moon Productions presentation of Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline. Photo by Jason Benson.
The cast of the Sun & Moon Productions presentation of Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline. Photo by Jason Benson.

On its surface, Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline has plenty of atmosphere, eccentric characters, impressive fight scenes, and some terrific performances. For all its positives though, it is surprising just how shallow it really is.

Set in 1893 Italy, the story follows Zastrozzi, the self-proclaimed “master criminal of all Europe”, as he pursues the religiously unstable Verezzi, the man he holds responsible for the death of his mother. Rather than kill him outright though, Zastrozzi hatches a convoluted plan to drive Verezzi to suicide, ensuring he not only suffers in this life, but is damned to hell in the afterlife. Sending his mistress Matilda to seduce Verezzi, this grand plan doesn’t turn out quite the way he had planned.

Complicating things are Verezzi’s “tutor” Victor, who has been aware of Zastrozzi’s plot for some time, and the fact Verezzi has already become smitten by the local virgin named Julia. Thrown into the mix is Zastrozzi’s right-hand man Bernardo who is more interested in committing unspeakable crimes than he is in actually helping his master.

With such a cast of eccentrics, one would think there is enough fodder here to create a compelling story. Unfortunately, Walker makes it near impossible as he only ever skims the surface with each of his characters, making it hard to invest. This is especially true of the men who are simply variations on a single theme. Walker’s female characters do not fare much better with the white of the virgin, versus the black of the seductress, a little too on-the-nose.

With little emotional attachment to any of these characters, we are not invested in the outcome. By the time the bodies quite literally start piling up at the end we feel little empathy or sympathy.

Despite this lack of connection, under Jennifer Copping’s direction there are still some terrific performances.

Of particular note is Giacomo Baessato as Bernardo. Opening the show in an almost maniacal fashion, it is a persona which he successfully carries through the play’s two-acts. Seeming without conscience, it is a portrait of a madman who we desperately want to know what led to him becoming the man he is. Like most of Walker’s other characters though, we are never given that opportunity.

Also giving his all is Massimo Frau as Verrezzi, who embraces his character’s apparent insanity with glee. Again however, there is little depth, and any twinges of sympathy to this other madman-of-a-different-stripe are superficial at best.

As the titular character, Birkett Turton is convincing, but again Walker gives us little to understand what ultimately drives him beyond a misplaced revenge, and Emmett Lee Stang gives life to Victor playing his character’s seriousness to the hilt.

Unfortunately, the female members of the cast are not quite as successful. Again though, much can be laid at the feet of the playwright as these two characters are even more simply drawn than their male counterparts, with sexuality their driving force.

Accent aside, at least Starlise Waschuk, who plays the seductress Matilda, gets to play with the boys with some fine swordplay, and she certainly knows how to crack a whip. As Julia though, Alissa Hansen plays too hard into the virgin’s hands resulting in a flat, rather than naïve, performance. To her credit though, Hansen does gives us a wild seduction scene at the hands (or should that be words) of Turton’s Zastrozzi.

Speaking of swordplay, there is some convincing fight choreography from fight directors Mike Kovac and Ryan Bolton.

The real star of this production comes from the almost cinematic quality created by lighting designer Itai Erdal and sound designer Dustin Clark. Both add stylish layers to the proceedings, with Erdal playing with shadows, lightning. and pinpoint specials against Marian Munoz’s set. Clark’s music and sound effects wonderfully underscore the action on stage. Hilary Jardine’s costumes give hints to the time period with a clever, almost contemporary, twist.

Ultimately though, while Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline looks great, it is let down by a script that spends way too much time in the shallow end.

Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline by George F Walker. Directed by Jennifer Copping. A Star & Moons Production. On stage at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab until June 21. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.