May 25, 2009 / 5:25 AM / 9 years ago

Italian showman Benigni brings Dante to America

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A one-man show about Italian poet Dante Alighieri may not sound like a bundle of laughs but when the man doing it is Roberto Benigni, famous for his exuberant antics after winning an Oscar, it won’t be a snooze.

<p>Italian director and actor Roberto Benigni is shown in this file photo. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz</p>

The show, “TuttoDante” (All Dante), takes as its starting point the poet’s greatest work, “The Divine Comedy,” a medieval allegory in which Dante travels down through the circles of hell, emerges in purgatory and eventually ascends to paradise.

“I‘m not a professor, I‘m a showman,” Benigni said in an interview a few days before making his U.S. stage debut with the show on Tuesday. “Don’t expect notes or a commentary.”

“TuttoDante” is part stand-up comedy and part performance of the fifth canto of the poem, in which Dante meets famous lovers from history who were brought low by lust. The show has been a hit in Italy as well as Paris, Athens and London.

Benigni will take it to San Francisco, New York, Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Quebec City, Chicago and Buenos Aires in the coming weeks.

A long-standing celebrity at home in Italy, Benigni won world acclaim with the tragicomic 1998 Holocaust film “Life Is Beautiful,” which he directed and starred in. Benigni won an Academy Award for best actor and the movie was chosen best foreign film.

Known for his slapstick comedy and political satire, he brought a fresh touch to the often stuffy Oscars ceremony when he climbed on the back of his seat in excitement after he was told he had won an Oscar.

Benigni said childlike exuberance is in his nature -- and he wasn’t just climbing on his seat, he was trying to fly.

LUCKY TO HAVE BERLUSCONI

He talks about Dante’s poem with similar excitement, gesturing wildly and laughing with glee as he ponders in which circle of hell he would place Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, frequently the target of his most biting comedy.

“Comedians have a duty to joke, to protect people, citizens, from power, from the government,” Benigni said in English.

He says he is the envy of comedians outside Italy who tell him, “You’re very lucky, Benigni, you have Berlusconi.”

“When Berlusconi is not in charge, when he was not prime minister, I turned to Dante, because I didn’t know what to do without Berlusconi,” Benigni said of the media magnate who was elected prime minister for a third time in April 2008.

Benigni said Berlusconi would feature in the show and he also may talk about U.S. politicians in a monologue that is largely improvised and changes from night to night.

A reviewer for Britain’s Daily Telegraph said of the show that by the time Benigni reached the final section in Dante’s medieval Italian, “I was out of my depth. It didn’t matter. He recited the words so animatedly but with such reverence for the 11-syllable lines, it was like listening to great music.”

Benigni, too, likens Dante’s poetry to music, saying the poet uses different styles for each character.

“It’s like you hear Beethoven and Duke Ellington together, Bach and Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “It’s jazz, rock, classic, lyric, largo, piano, contrapunto, pizzicato.”

He said the show will be in English, peppered with Italian -- “Very spicy, because it will be very peppered but the show is in English.”

“You can say what you want about me but not that I‘m not courageous, bold, to make a show with this accent,” he said.

Editing by Bill Trott

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