IL CAMPIELLO: A VENETIAN COMEDY -- In the Terrace Theater through Saturday.
Antique slapstick, of whatever vintage, seems to work particularly well now. Jumping into another theatrical era apparently serves to free actors of the overburdneed conventions of contemporary slapstick, which television has rendered so predictable and leaden, and inspire them to fresh forms of silliness.
The reason that "Il Campiello," subtitled "A Venetian Comedy," is a scream is not that the 1756 play is a newly rediscovered comic treasure. Carlo Goldini's mission was to revive the tradition of Italican commedia dell'arte by supplying its characters with fixed texts, but there's no dialogue in this play that couldn't have been improvised by the simplest itinerant performer.
It's funny because a group of young itinerant performers called The Acting Company plunges into it, under the director of Liviu Ciulei, with wildly enthusiastic goffiness. The character of an old woman who pretends she isn't deaf or toothless is not, itself, a comic masterpiece, but it is when a 1980 Julliard graduate named Lynn Chausow sinks her gums into it. There are greater examples of 18th-century satire than the three marriage-starved girls who run about this slum piazza or campiello -- actually, probably all surviving examples are better -- but Johann Carlo, Lori Putnam and Pamela Nyberg manage perfectly without any Sheridan-caliber lines.Nyberg stoops so low as to get her laughs by lisping, and doing it on phrases such as "sweet Venice." Never mind -- it works.
The production is in a style that is now chiefly associated with comic opera -- tri-cornered hats and swooshed capes, lots of doorways and balconies, and periodic snowfalls. The set design by Radu Boruzescu is inexplicable -- Venetian slums are not made of mud, and wood is a luxury item in Venice, where nobody has heavy beam railings, certainly not the poor -- but the choreography, or hazardous traffic direction, by Anna Sokolow, is a fast kaleidoscope.
The Acting Company, which calls itself "the official theatrical touring arm" of the Kennedy Center, will follow this week's comedy in the Terrace Theater with Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," directed by Alan Schneider, next week. The young company began at the Kennedy Center last year, with such forced modernizations as a rock version of "The White Devil," but now seems to be going straight -- and comic.