The best Italian actor (Toni Servillo) you don't know — yet

When the Italians say "cinema," it sounds better than when the Americans say it. CHEE-nay-ma. Doesn't that sound better?

Born in 1959 and widely considered to be his nation's greatest stage and screen actor, Toni Servillo is seven hours ahead of us in Chicago, Skyping from his kitchen at home in Caserta, in the Campania region of southern Italy. Caserta is near Naples, the location of Servillo's creative home, Teatri Uniti, which he co-founded in 1987. Early in the interview he sneaks in a two-second pantomime routine, the international "Can I borrow a cigarette?" fingers-to-lips gesture, silently communicating with his unseen wife. Such a simple bit, but it's a thrill to see it handled by a masterly actor. I am seated in an office at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago next to my translator, Andrea Raos, the deputy cultural attache. We are drinking espresso. Across the world, so is Servillo.

He is little known to American theater audiences. He is better known for a dazzling body of film work, including recent turns as the crime boss in the terrific "Gomorrah" (2008), directed by Matteo Garrone; the sphinxlike, possibly murderous prime minister Giulio Andreotti in director Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo" (also from 2008); and most recently, premiering last month at the Cannes Film Festival, in "La Grande Bellezza" ("The Great Beauty"), also directed by Sorrentino, in which Servillo — an unclassifiable performer, with the gravity and force of Gene Hackman but with the rumpled allure of middle-aged Marcello Mastroianni — brings mysterious charm to the role of a jaded celebrity journalist, whose chronicles of Rome have led to a crisis of the soul.

This week, Servillo and company make their Chicago debut with five performances of a rarely staged 1948 Eduardo De Filippo play "Inner Voices." It's a touring production co-presented by three companies: Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Teatro di Roma and Teatro Uniti.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater Executive Director Criss Henderson caught the production in Rome. "When you bring in a sizable company such as this," he says of the 30-person cast and crew, "it comes at a cost. But when you're talking about some of the great performers of the world, it's well worth the investment."

"Inner Voices" was born in the period following the ravages of World War II, when films such as Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City" and Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" showed an international audience a country and a people riven by mistrust. The play, staged by Servillo, features the actor-director as a man who dreams of a murder committed by a neighbor. It's real enough to convince the man he must notify the police. Before long a tangled web, spanning both lies and truth, has been spun, and "Inner Voices" has been characterized in its previous touring stops in Marseilles and Rome as black comedy pointing ahead to such writers as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

On YouTube you can see all sorts of Servillo performances and interviews, some in their entirety (though without English subtitles), including Servillo's own staging of the internationally popular De Filippo comedy "Saturday, Sunday, Monday." Watching Servillo in that telecast, fully inhabiting the beleaguered patriarch of the piece, you see where he's coming from when, in the recent interview through a translator, he speaks of "great simplicity and dryness" as being paramount virtues. His favorite American actor, he says, is Spencer Tracy. "He is above everybody," Servillo says, with a smile. "An absolute natural."

The same has been said of Servillo. "I'm almost at a loss to describe him," Henderson says. "He's extraordinary. He has a charisma that is singular and he isn't stamping his performance with any movie star quality. He's simple."

Gene Siskel Film Center programming director Barbara Scharres saw Servillo's latest screen triumph in Cannes, in "The Great Beauty." (The film is due in the U.S. later this year and is already a big hit in Italy.) "He's riveting," she says, "in a very quiet performance."

Silvio Marchetti, head of the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, is a partner in sponsoring the Chicago engagement of "Inner Voices." Servillo, he says flatly, "is Neapolitan. That has everything to do with his way of acting. Neapolitans are extremely empathetic, whereas the typical northern attitude is more about not showing or sharing your feelings." On the other hand, Marchetti says, Servillo's subtlety suggests Neapolitan earthiness mixed with "the understatement of the north."

Servillo winces when told of the typical American approach to De Filippo, all bug eyes and mugging. "Dignity first, always," he says: That's the key to this writer. The key to Servillo's own career, which has yet to (and may never) include an English-language film, is simple: theater and film, film and theater. Plus directing operas on the side.

"A solid theatrical education can only improve a screen performance," he says. "It gives you a fuller capacity to read a script and understand a character, for one thing. It's important to alternate between the two activities."

After the Chicago performances, Servillo, his wife and their two sons (ages 16 and 10) are heading west for a vacation to San Francisco and thereabouts. It'll be his first trip to California.

By the time he was 20, Servillo knew what he wanted. "To act," he says. "That's all. I never dreamed I would be onstage in Berlin, Paris, New York, and now Chicago. Acting requires a lot of discipline to go with the obsession. It's a path of knowledge, and of self-knowledge. Sometimes you get lost on the path. And then you find yourself again."

"Inner Voices," 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat., Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.; $50-$70; chicagoshakes.com or 312-595-5600.

mphillips@tribune.com

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