Commedia dell’arte, the Italian comedy specializing in a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants, is 500 years old. And it’s not dead yet, to judge by the current slap-happy commedia mini-wave.
At the Shakespeare Theatre Company, director Christopher Bayes’s acclaimed staging of “The Servant of Two Masters” begins Tuesday. The show gives a big wet kiss to the commedia tradition. Masks, actors improvising with the audience, live music — Bayes goes old school with the 1743 Carlo Goldoni play that is probably the most-revived of all commedia-style scripts.
But commedia, of course, isn’t about sticking to the script, especially one that Bayes says Goldoni stole from the actors. So what do Bayes and the cast do during rehearsal?
“[Bleep] around,” says actor Stephen Epp, who plays the addled servant of the title.
“[Bleep] around a lot,” Bayes agrees.
On Broadway, “One Man, Two Guvnors” is up for seven Tony Awards after triumphing at London’s National Theatre. Richard Bean’s adaptation moves the action to 1960s England, with a British Invasion-type pop band playing lively tunes between the scenes.
The design and dialogue are updated, but the show’s bones are Goldoni’s, straight out of “Servant.” The plot follows romantic complications with a woman cross-dressed as her dead brother; double entendres fly and trousers fall. The farcical highlight finds the wily servant trying to feed two bosses (who don’t know about each other) and his own hungry self from a single meal.
James Corden is Tony-nominated as best actor for his impish turn, and you can see him in the NT Live broadcast of “One Man” next Sunday at the STC’s Harman Hall. After intermission, Corden addresses the crowd (there’s a lot of that in commedia, which has roots in street theater). He asks whether any particularly savvy commedia buffs might be anticipating what his hapless clown character, the Harlequin, will do for motivation in act two.
“No?” Corden asks, getting no response. “Good. Nice to know we haven’t got any dorks in tonight.”
Of course, since commedia is often gleefully profane, the word Corden uses is not quite “dorks.”
At Gallaudet University, Matthew R. Wilson is acting Hamlet. Only he’s playing the melancholy Dane as a loudly clad Arlecchino, which is another name for Harlequin. Wilson’s ludicrous orange sweater matches his argyle socks. He stands on his head during an early soliloquy. Late in the play, Hamlet and Laertes, grappling in Ophelia’s grave, share a Three Stooges moment, poking each other in the eyes.
This is “Hamlecchino, Clown Prince of Denmark,” the latest venture from actor-director Wilson and his Faction of Fools company. The show is flip enough to have two Gallaudet students in the cast performing in American Sign Language — meaning, as one character explains, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are deaf.” But it also sticks close to Shakespeare’s words, creating what Washington Post critic Celia Wren called “an almost Beckettian black comedy landscape.”
Last month Faction of Fools won a Helen Hayes Awards as outstanding emerging troupe, fairly quick work for a three-year old company that grew out of Wilson’s one-man performances. Wilson came to study with the STC’s Academy of Classical Acting, liked the theater scene in Washington, and thought a commedia troupe might take hold. Already, more than 100 people have worked with the troupe in performances at Capital Fringe and elsewhere.
“It’s been exciting,” Wilson says, “to see breadth of interest and the quality of people interested in this.”
Wilson, talking in an empty classroom at the University of Maryland (where he’s pursuing an PhD), is pretty brainy about his low business. He’s studied and taught abroad with Italian master Antonio Fava, and contributed program notes for “Servant” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. He’ll happily tell you about commedia’s masks, archetypal characters and physical shtick as survival tools of newly professional performers barnstorming across strange lands in the 1500s.
“You go from Milan to Bologna,” Wilson explains of 16th-century Italy, “and you’ve crossed through several different language zones. And that’s only two hours by train today.”
So traveling troupes acting for a living learned to milk the laughs and pathos out of broad, universal situations — love, sadness, hunger. “These are cross-cultural themes that you can play in Italy, Germany, Russia, England,” Wilson says. “It’s looking at very basic stories about what it is to be human.”
Epp, sitting with Bayes in Michael Kahn’s STC office on Barracks Row, says, “Those companies knew that the bottom line was it’s gotta work. It has to get this laugh and this laugh and this laugh, and they have to land. Or we don’t get paid.”
Two commedia terms come up a lot: “lazzi” and “scenario.” Bayes likes to talk about “lazzi” as “games,” or routines built on stock situations and explored to the limit. A good lazzi can be recycled from show to show, which Bayes has been doing with a bit he calls “death’s door.” Apparently this lazzi pops up in “Servant,” and has been in his recent staging of Moliere’s “A Doctor in Spite of Himself.”
“We’ve been doing this particular joke since 1999,” says Bayes, clearly delighted. “And there’s stuff that we did in ‘Servant’ that went to ‘Doctor’ and is now back in ‘Servant.’ ”
“Which is exactly how commedia works,” Epps chimes in.
A “scenario,” Wilson says, is the skimpy outline that skilled commedia actors used to build entire performances. He says about 800 historical scenarios exist in libraries and collections around the world. Most are unpublished.
“They’re all terrible reading,” Wilson says. “Just three to five pages of entrances and exits.” He suggests what “Hamlet” would be like as one of these scenarios: “ ‘Hamlet enters and contemplates suicide, and he tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery.’ If that’s all that survived of Act 3, Scene 1 of ‘Hamlet,’ we would never know who Shakespeare was. And for the best commedia artists, that’s all we get.”
That illustrates how actor-driven commedia was, which is why Bayes — head of physical acting at Yale and movement director of the wildly successful U.S. version of the four-actor “The 39 Steps” — thinks having a true company is the best way to work. He and Epp first collaborated 28 years ago at the famed physical theater troupe Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis.
“Servant” is the first chance they’ve had to reunite professionally. Now an ad hoc company has formed around the “Servant” and “Doctor” productions directed by Bayes and starring Epp.
“It’s so naked,” Epp says of acting in commedia. “You have to trust that the other people are going to be there for you. That requires great rapport.”
Wilson, who cheerfully admits to a mind-set of “What if everything were commedia?”, has been pleased to find so many well-trained local performers eager to jump in with his new troupe. He also coordinates an annual international commedia day, and this year he even had participants in Antarctica.
“I got in touch with some polar scientists,” Wilson says, “and said, ‘If I got you some masks and a scenario, would you do a show?’ And they said, ‘Yeah. We’re bored.’” He calls up photos of the scientists in Italian masks on his cellphone.
Bayes thinks commedia is still too specialized for this moment’s boomlet to be a full-blown craze. But he does report that his summertime commedia course, usually slow to fill, this year sold out first.
And training, of course, helps the old form continue to take wing. “It’s not like we’re just throwing [stuff] out there,” Epp says. “It’s really quite disciplined.”
Commedia dell’arte’s stock characters: A guide
Arlecchino: a mischievous fool. In “Hamlecchino”: Hamlet
The Captain: a soldier/warrior. In “Hamlecchino”: Claudius
The Doctor: typically a quack. In “Hamlecchino”: Polonius
Pulcinella: often self-centered and cruel; forerunner of “Punch” of “Punch and Judy.” In “Hamlecchino”: The Ghost
Innamorati: young lovers. In “Hamlecchino”: Laertes, Ophelia
Zanni: clowns or fools. In “Hamlecchino”: Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Tuesday- June 24
450 Seventh St. NW.
$39 to $79. 202-547-1122.
Faction of Fools
Faction of Fools Theatre Company at Gallaudet University
800 Florida Ave. NE
$10 to $25
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th St., New York, NY 10036
212-239-6200; outside the New York metro area, 800-432-7250
Tuesday - Thursday: $66.50 to $121.50
Friday - Sunday: $66.50 to $126.50