Gianni Damaia was rocking dark brown dreadlocks that hung past his shoulders until he scored the leading role of Rudy in The Players Theatre’s production of “Over the Tavern.”
“It was hard to grow them, and right when they actually looked good, I had to cut them off,” Gianni says. “I kept them smelling good with dreadlock shampoo — there were fruity and very nice aromas coming off my head.”
Gianni pulls open the theater’s stage door to reveal an all-female fan club standing in the hallway. As if on command, the girls begin chanting “Gianni! Gianni!” The 15-year-old offers up a sheepish grin and several hugs before heading off to the men’s dressing room, where piano tunes playing over a speaker in the ceiling threaten to drown out all other noises.
In third grade, a cruise ship talent show sparked Gianni’s interest in acting. Gianni couldn’t resist reciting comedian Dane Cook’s lines whenever the situation lent itself to it. After several requests by his mother to hear her son deliver the lines before an audience, he gave in and shocked the crew handed over the mic. He thoroughly enjoyed his time on stage.
Another push from Gianni’s mother in sixth grade landed him the leading role of Charlie in Sarasota Middle School’s performance of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Breaking into a high-pitched, squeaky, chipmunk sound, Gianni does his imitation of Charlie — Mickey Mouse-style.
“The year after Charlie, I got the lead in ‘Ransom of Red Chief,’ but in eighth grade, there was no play, so I grew dreadlocks,” Gianni says. “It dawned on me that I really wanted to go to Booker for the VPA program. When I got in, I was the only freshman to be cast in the play, ‘Here and Now.’ I had this opening monologue thing and had to be a funny usher — it was very cool, easy and natural, loosey-goosey.”
Gianni recently auditioned for “Anne Frank,” at the Venice Theater, but Director Kelly Woodland wouldn’t cast him for one reason — he was too short.
“She said I should audition for ‘Over the Tavern,’” Gianni says. “I auditioned with a monologue from ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’ It went fantastic. The best thing for me is when people laugh, because then the tension is broken and happy, and it feels a lot better.”
When Gianni first received the callback to try out for the part of a 12-year-old named Rudy, he raised his eyebrows in a yeah-right-no-way-am-I-playing-a-kid kind of way. But now that he’s gotten to know his character, a smarty-pants kid who questions family values and the Roman Catholic Church — Gianni is having a blast. Rather than be confirmed, Rudy wants to shop around for a more “fun” religion. He ends up going toe-to-toe with an abusive nun, Sister Clarissa, played by Bobbie Barrell.
“If one word could describe it, it’s ‘exhilarating,’” Gianni says. “I get to be me but a less mature me. I get to just run around saying crazy things without even thinking about them.”
Born during a time when children were seen and not heard, Sister Clarissa enters the church at a young age and emerges armed with two disciplining devices: a ruler and a clicker.
“This character is all the nasty things you can be inside that are not appropriate to express,” says Bobbie Burrell, who plays the abusive Sister Clarissa in the show. “My voice is very firm, very precise, and I yell. When children don’t behave, I click for silence. The ruler plays a big part, because if a child still doesn’t behave, he has to put out his hand, and I rap the knuckles.”
With questions about his faith posed to Sister Clarissa, Rudy (played by Gianni Damaia) feels the brunt of all the knuckle rapping, especially when he spends more time on his Ed Sullivan impersonation than his studies. The clicker actually belongs to one of the cast members in the show.
“Bobbie, I love her to death,” Gianni says. “She is so afraid of hitting me with that ruler and almost tries to miss. I think the clicker thing is so silly, like I’m an animal being trained. I think that’s what Rudy thinks, too. He’s all about having fun and has the philosophy that whatever he does in life, he wants to enjoy that and love that moment.”
IF YOU GO
“Over the Tavern” runs June 30 through July 3; and July 28 through July 31; at The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail. Tickets are $18 for adults and $12 for students. For information, call the box office at 365-2494.
GIANNI ON HIS TOP 3 FLICKS
“I just watch Robert De Niro and think, ‘Wow — you’re so cool. How can I be like you?’ There’s something about that guy.”
“I like mob movies. That movie is just great acting, great story and a big twist. It has a really horrific but awesome ending. There’s something about that movie that just gets me every time — I always want to watch it. Blood, yeah!”
“It’s just funny. How bad can something go wrong?”
Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].