Review: 'Zastrozzi' at the Victor Mitchell Theatre

Vicki Trask

OnStage Canada Critic

I attended Scorpio Theatre’s latest production of “Zastrozzi”, at the Victor Mitchell Theatre, with the expectation of a light and fluffy post-apocalyptic story. I was shockingly mistaken. Written by George F Walker, this two-act play follows Zastrozzi, the most dangerous man in Europe, as he seeks vengeance on the insanely optimistic Verezzi. We meet the most dangerous seductress in Europe, the brutal second hand of Zastrozzi, the deceptively cunning tutor, and the virtuous yet unfortunate virgin. Director Keith Kollee has assembled a fantastically talented cast of actors to bring this story to life.

I never thought I’d see the day when I rooted for the sidekick over the main character but there was something about the ruthless, simple-minded, brute that I found endearing. I felt for him – which may be a comment on my own character – and I think actor Jason Schnieder gave an excellent performance as Bernardo. 

Not to say Aaron Conrad’s performance as Zastrozzi was anything less than incredible to watch. This is a character who lives in the extremes and never settles to earth long enough to stop spouting fantastical prose. He is brutal and commanding yet vulnerable and plagued with emotion. It’s an interesting dynamic to watch and I felt Aaron’s performance was strongest as the confident and manipulative man. His swagger preceded him into every scene. 

Zastrozzi’s foil, the annoyingly positive Verezzi, was just a delight to watch. Darcy Wilson’s performance was both endearing and infuriating, allowing us to sympathize with and shout at our unfortunate dreamer in equal measure. Every word out of his mouth was a pleasant reprieve from the thick and brooding tone of the production’s other scenes.

The story of Zastrozzi is set in a rather interesting environment. If I hadn’t been told so in the program, I wouldn’t have understood this to be some post-apocalyptic world that was just starting over. From the language, tone, and overall design I found myself in a slightly muted medieval place. Matt Pickering and James Ravenhill’s set design was well laid out – with the exception of one set change which took a significant amount of time – and I could see where the attention to detail was given. The same can be said of the props design by Brad Laberge and Mikee Ames – which were well constructed and coherently matched the set.

I will admit to a lack of knowledge about post-apocalyptic fashions but Tawni Barton’s costume design seemed unfinished.  The tattered and flowing look was overwhelming and I lost the actors in their fabric. It made me nervous for all of their fight scenes – and there were plenty of them. Violence designer John Knight created several combat scenes for the actors to play with; most of which were a little slow and laboured for comfort but were clearly constructed and well-rehearsed. 

One fight in particular caught my eye and that was between Aaron Conrad’s Zastrozzi and Jennifer Merio’s Matilda. It wasn’t so much a fight as a death defying battle of wits – and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment – I even wanted more. That is Matilda in a nutshell; dangerous, cunning, sensual, but needed one more spark of energy to make me fall head over heels in love with her. Jennifer’s performance was definitely among my favourites.

The final two players in this dark and dangerous thriller are Duane Jones as Victor and Emma Gallaher as Julia. The first, the overly protective and cleverly cunning tutor to Verezzi, was a series of perfectly placed eye rolls and soothing reminders than life is not always so kind. The other, the sharp-tongued and virtuous virgin, intrigued me but fell short of satisfying my curiosity. This character had a personality and a history that I wanted to see amongst the warring factions of good and evil but we never get to see it. I realize that’s more on the playwright than the actor but I will say that Emma gave a very engaging performance – so much that I wanted to see more of her.

Though this isn’t the story I was expected, I was pleasantly surprised and absolutely entertained by Scorpio Theatre’s second production of the season and can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next.