New School of Northern Virginia gives ‘Commedia Dell’Arte’ hip makeover
A night at the theater could mean a sad Shakespearean tragedy, an exciting fairy tale, an artistic rock opera or even a witty one-person monologue. Rarely do so many elements come together so exquisitely to provide an energetic, bright and entirely different show as they did in The New School of Northern Virginia’s production of “Commedia Dell’Arte—Isabella’s Jealousy.”
Commedia dell’arte is one of the earliest forms of theatrical comedy that relied on improvisation and involved stock characters, familiar plots and, most of all, versatility on the part of the performers, who had to be actors, musicians and dancers. Over the centuries, it has changed and taken on a different look and feel. “Isabella’s Jealousy” originated as a two-page scenario dating back to 1521 and was improvised and performed by commedia dell’arte troupes. The title character has been locked in a tower and sets out to punish her cheating lover Orazio by dressing up as a gangster named “Isabello.” While parading the streets of Milan and devouring everything in her line of smell, Isabella’s twin brother Fabrizio is also roaming around, which causes an identity crisis and sets up other crazy adventures.
New School’s energetic cast carried the comedy in the modern-day production. Bold interaction with the unsuspecting audience induced laughter: a character proposed to one audience member and another spectator was brought on stage. The performers also made excellent use of traditional commedia bits called “lazzi,” which are concise, well-calculated comedic actions designed to make people laugh frequently. A modern example would be a banana peel slip sequence or, in this production, the use of the pitiable servant Pulomo (Chas Saphos) as a punching bag.
The show demanded much of lead actress Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood. In addition to playing Isabella and her alter ego Isabello, she also portrayed Fabrizio, Isabella’s twin brother. With vivid characterization and personality, she juggled Isabella’s constant eating, Fabrizio’s swagger, and the different voices that went with each of her characters. Rarely did she walk on stage without inciting uproarious laughter, particularly in her opening monologue as a lonely, ice cream-downing Isabella, and later as the seductive, boasting Fabrizio.
But she had help. The cast supporting Gooding-Silverwood were armed with decisive, paper-cutting wit. Mauricio Cimino-Campodonico, as Orazio’s friend Flavio, performed with an almost refreshing restraint. Mary Kobor’s exaggeratedly dorky mannerisms made the eccentric Dottore Graziano come to life. And Brian Kraemer’s physical comedy as servant Arlecchino, particularly in his dance battle with Flavio, was precisely funny.
The show’s most notable technical element was the commedia wagon, traditionally used as a traveling set for the commedia troupes. Decorated with bright geometrical designs, not only was it faithful to the commedia style, but also consistent with the show’s vigorous tempo. The performers put the wagon to excellent use, and it served as the site for a surgical procedure, a rock concert and even a bubble bath.
A weakness of the show involved the same thing that made the show endearing: the comedy. Some actors had problems that are typical in improvised shows: talking over one another and overacting, which distracts from the plot. In some instances, however, the acting and energy needed to be bold and consistent with the commedia style, and it ended up serving the production well.
Ultimately, the students achieved what commedia dell’arte sets out to do—entertain. The actors celebrated an art form that never ceases to surprise or engage. If they left their audience with one lasting impression of “Isabella’s Jealousy,” it was this: a cross-dressing Milanese rapper can only make sense in a theatrical style as versatile, timeless and energetic as commedia dell’arte. Oh, and “hell really hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Catherine Addington, Posted by Mario Iván Oña
March 1, 2010; 6:59 PM ET
| Tags: Cappies 2010
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