All Ends Well in ‘Tragedee’

'Sicilian Tragedee,' by Ottavio Cappellani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has inspired an abundance of adaptations, from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Shakespeare himself adapted the story from the earlier tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. While most of these adaptations preserve the tragedy of the love story, Ottavio Cappellani’s latest novel “Sicilian Tragedee” takes the tale in the unusual direction towards comedy.At first glance Cappellani’s work, now available in an English translation by Frederika Randall, appears capricious and chaotic, with no main character, plotline, or theme emerging. However, as the novel progresses, Cappellani’s playful manipulation of Shakespeare’s creation lends depth to a story that might otherwise be nothing more than a frivolous laugh.Despite calling itself a “Tragedee,” Cappellani’s novel has all the trappings of a classic comedy. Set in the heart of a Sicilian summer, the novel is divided into three “acts” and focuses primarily on two blossoming romances—one between the middle-aged mafioso Alfio Turrisi and Betty, the daughter of his rival, and the other between theater director Tino Cagnotto and his paramour Bobo, an aspiring young actor. Both of these storylines play with Shakespeare’s own romantic plots. Although Betty’s father urges her to fall in love with Turrisi, she tells Turrisi that her father would be displeased with their relationship, at once holding Turrisi at bay without rejecting him and frustrating her father’s hopes for a quick engagement. Betty’s clever manipulation of lover and father is in almost direct opposition to the role of Shakespeare’s Juliet. The love between Cagnotto and Bobo draws out the role of love between two men, which Shakespeare hints at in plays like “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” where his heroines crossdress in order to be closer to the men they love.Meanwhile, set against these two romances is the production of “Romeo and Juliet” that Tino Cagnotto is directing. His project is to reinstate Shakespeare, who hired street actors to perform his plays, as a playwright for the common people. He declares to Bobo at the onset of his project, “Bobo, I’m going to stage the play in which the Bard taught us to overcome social convention, in which he showed us that the power of love cannot be thwarted by society’s rules.” Cagnotto interprets the play in a ridiculously sexual and homosexual context where the central relationship is that between Romeo and Mercutio. With this subplot, Cappellani alludes to Shakespeare’s own use of the play within the play, as in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where the commonfolk acting troupe, The Mechanicals, put on an unintentionally comedic version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the Duke’s nuptial celebration. The style in which Cagnatto wishes to present his play mimics the style of Cappellani’s own writing. The novel is full of colloquial phrasing, both in the narration and in dialogue. Jam-packed with action and rarely staying with one character for more than a few pages, Cappellani’s novel seems to combine a nuanced tribute to Shakespeare’s work with a page-turning plot worthy of Dan Brown. However, there are times when Cappellani’s style distracts the reader from the story. The novel often reads like a screenplay, with quick cuts between scenes that are described entirely in the present tense. Although Cappellani’s constant use of the present tense throws his reader into the midst of the action, it also restricts the scope of each scene to the immediate present and creates a monotonous effect. The brevity of each scene and the multiplicity of characters often prevent the reader from getting deeply involved with any one plotline, because just as a character begins to become sympathetic, the focus shifts to someone new. Moreover, although Cappellani’s casual language gives the voices of his characters and his narrator a very realistic, modern flavor, he seems to think that profanity is one of the most important parts of colloquial speech. By putting a constant flow of curses into every character’s mouth, he has a harder time creating distinct voices for each one. While “ball buster” may be a colorful way to describe someone, when practically every character uses the expression, the words become tired and uninteresting (and not particularly descriptive, either).“Ball busters” notwithstanding, Cappellani has an acute sense of humor when it comes to creating his characters. From the selfish and manipulative Betty to the self-serious and love-tortured Cagnatto, the people who populate “Sicilian Tragedee” are amusing, if not always endearing. Cappellani’s “Sicilian Tragedee” is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy in which every character is, if not as witty as Mercutio, at least as ridiculous as the traveling acting troupe in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Despite his stylistic missteps, Cappellani’s novel, at once full of literary allusions and lacking all high literary pretension, is a whimsical tribute to Shakespeare’s genius. —Staff writer Rachel Burns can be reached at