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From Paris to N.J.: Isabella Rossellini’s ‘Darwin’s Smile’ comes to Frenchtown

The actor-model-author-farmer plays “dogs, cats, chickens, peacocks, and, of course, Charles Darwin,” in a comedic meditation on art and science. It plays at Frenchtown's Art Yard this weekend.

Isabella Rossellini is bringing her new one-woman show, "Darwin's Smile," to Frenchtown, N.J., this weekend.
Isabella Rossellini is bringing her new one-woman show, "Darwin's Smile," to Frenchtown, N.J., this weekend.Read moreAndre Rau

Anyone who follows Isabella Rossellini’s Instagram will not be surprised when the actor-model-author says that she was “born with a love for animals” or that she has a degree in animal behavior and conservation.

In Long Island, N.Y.’s, Mama Farm, which Rossellini started in 2013, 200 chickens follow her around like dogs. She was 14 when her father, filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, gifted her a book by Konrad Lorenz, regarded as the father of animal behavioral science.

This weekend, she is headed to Frenchtown, N.J.’s, ArtYard where she will be performing her one-woman show Darwin’s Smile, her attempt at bridging the purported binaries of art and science.

“I don’t think they’re separate at all,” she said to The Inquirer from her home next to her farm. “Surely, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t see this separation.” The monologue evolved from two 45-minute-long lectures — “Darwin’s Headache” and “Darwin’s Smile” — Rossellini delivered at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay in 2021, as a part of an exhibit that explored how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution impacted artists.

Darwin’s Smile was inspired by Darwin’s 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, where he, Rossellini surmised, “took it for granted that animals have emotions, just like us, and express them.” He also believed that expressions, like all life-forms, evolved. “For example, Rossellini said, “If I smile, it’s understood all over the world. But—” (she does the “Italian” pursed fingers gesture on our Zoom call) — “if I do this in India, not many people will understand it. It’s an Italian gesture.”

Darwin believed in the cultural specificity of gestures. Is a smile just something brought in by the evolution of beaks, bones, and lips? How did its meaning evolve through generations? The knowledge of gestures, he argued, is inherited. Then you take that knowledge and expression, and communicate with others. “This is basically a reflection on science and acting,” said Rossellini. That is the crux of Darwin’s Smile.

“If I smile, you know that I am benevolent, right? That’s when the actor comes in and asks, ‘What kind of a smile? What is the subtext behind the smile?’” Even within the rigidity of science, Rossellini insists, empathy is essential. “Because I can smile at you, but I need to have empathy to mean it.” She always had a problem when her study of animal behavior demanded that the scientist be detached from the animals. Without empathy, Rossellini said, you miss the details. “You cannot say a dog is happy to see me, you can only say that it moved its tail from left to right.”

It’s all fascinating but “written in very hard words,” Rossellini said. Darwin’s Smile — in which she plays “dogs, cats, chickens, peacocks, and, of course, Charles Darwin” — is her attempt to “express the wonderment that I have, once I bypass the hardship of reading something that is so difficult to read.”

In a way that only she is capable of, Rossellini ties together comedy, Darwin, acting, science, empathy, andanimals in Darwin’s Smile.

Rossellini — who just returned from Italy where she was shooting for Conclave, the Edward Berger film where she plays a nun — workshopped the play with director Murielle Mayette-Holtz, who invited her to perform Darwin’s Smile in a theater she opened in Nice, France. It used to be a church dedicated to St. Francis, the patron saint of animals.

The play ends with Rossellini saying, “I want to have my heart and my brain reunited.” What she couldn’t do in a science lab, she does in a theater.

“Darwin’s Smile” plays March 11-12, at ArtYard, 13 Front St., Frenchtown, N.J. Tickets $80.