LSA senior Paul Manganello’s high school Italian teacher was determined to give her students a representation of Italian-Americans that subverted Hollywood’s portrayals of Tony Soprano and Don Corleone (though nowadays, she might be battling the stereotypes on “Jersey Shore”). Among the films she showed of Italian-Americans contributing to art, culture and politics in the United States was one about Filippo Mazzei, an influential Italian philosopher in America during the nation’s founding.

Zealous Whig: Filippino Mazzei in Early America

Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m.
Walgreen Drama Center, Studio One

Mazzei is the subject of Manganello’s humorous one-man Basement Arts show “Zealous Whig: Filippo Mazzei in Early America,” which opens Thursday.

Caught between deep reverence for Mazzei’s contributions and mockery inspired by images from the high school film of the Italian theorist dictating the Declaration of Independence to Thomas Jefferson, Manganello’s show walks the line between historical fiction and giddy whimsy. In the play’s YouTube trailer, Manganello, dressed in period costume, poses in various dignified positions while grandiose music plays. At the end of the trailer, Manganello struggles to tuck his shirt into this pants, and then finally bursts into laughter.

“Paul’s kind of a clown, but he also really appreciates (Mazzei’s) place in history, and both of those things are going to show through,” said Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Neal Kelley, who works as a consultant to evaluate things Manganello cannot see for himself while onstage. “(‘Zealous Whig’) is not just one guy giving a lecture. It’s this goofy, short, little Italian guy running around the stage and teaching about this other Italian guy’s life.”

For Manganello, who is one-quarter Italian, “Zealous Whig” has been in the works for years. In fall 2009, when his uncle offered to take him and his brother Jim on a trip to Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, they both jumped at the chance. Sure enough, Manganello’s thoughts circled back to that mysterious colonial character from Italian class — “the genius behind Jefferson,” as he half-jokingly calls Mazzei.

“I told Jim, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I dressed up as Filippo Mazzei, spoke like an Italian to locals and you filmed it?’ ” Manganello said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So we did.”

Manganello wore his period costume in the streets of historical Virginia, including the site of Mazzei’s home — though he later acquiesced to his uncle’s request that he explore Monticello in regular clothing. The final step of the experiment was to crash — and get kicked out of — three fraternity parties at the University of Virginia in full costume and film the response.

“In the end, Mazzei’s story was a lot like my first trip to Monticello,” said Manganello, who did an independent study this year on Mazzei’s writing on colonial politics, bringing some historical rigor to the play. “It’s the story of this guy who showed up in America, tried to get into the ultimate Virginia frat house — Congress — and then was kicked out.”

Historically, the Founding Fathers were resistant to Mazzei’s interpretation of Enlightenment ideals, specifically his “Italian” concept of equality. In a moment of clever anachronism in the play, Mazzei theorizes, in a thick Italian accent, how an adoption of “Italian” rather than “American” equality might play out in, say, a 21st century debate about health care legislation.

Manganello, a philosophy and Italian language and culture major, is also a stand-up comedian who has been featured in local venues. He sees this show as the culmination of all his interests: Italian, political theory, comedy and theater.

“It’s an excuse for me to be an Italian comedian,” Manganello said. “An American comedian laughs at the world, where the Italian comedian is more inclined to play the clown. He reflects the absurdity of the world that is laughing at him.”

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