Commedia time: Venice Theatre stages a new show with traditions
Pretty much everything we know about modern comedy dates back to traditions and styles developed in Italy more than 500 years ago.
Specific character types played with grand gestures, physical pratfalls and slapstick routines all can trace their roots to Commedia dell’arte, which emerged in the 15th century.
And that style, which involves a lot of improvisation, is taking on new meaning and new twists for a group of young performers at Venice Theatre, which is producing an original Commedia play for the upcoming AACT WorldFest 2014. Troupes from 12 other countries will be performing during the weeklong festival, presented at Venice Theatre by the American Association of Community Theatre.
Rehearsals for “Inn of Crossed Destinies” have been a mix of master class and staging for the nine performers, who range from age 11 to college.
By opening night, they will have worked for more than three weeks with Italian actors Cinzia Grande and Andrea Lattari, two masters of the art form, who wrote the script and are directing and co-starring in the show.
During a recent rehearsal, Grande and Lattari worked with their cast members to heighten the humor with broader reactions, exaggerated postures and lots of ensemble work. A sigh means much more if it’s accompanied by heaving shoulders and a sagging body.
The performers said they are amazed at how different the style is from the kinds of shows they usually do and how much they’re learning.
“One major thing I’ve learned is just moving your body the way the character is supposed to. It’s not something I’ve ever done before in everyday theater,” said Rachel Ware, one of three students from Berea College in Kentucky who are part of a summer internship at Venice Theatre.
“This is really comical and outlandish. Each character moves in a different way,” she said.
Charlie Kollar, who plays Orazio, said he has “learned just a whole bunch” during rehearsals. “It’s intricate language at a lot of points, unlike a lot of shows that I’ve done. I’ve always wanted to do a production where it’s a classic problem and funny bits and a solution and then a happy ending, which is what this is.”
“Inn of Crossed Destinies” is an outgrowth of a workshop Grande and Lattari led during the 2010 WorldFest at Venice Theatre, where they also performed their own Commedia show.
During that session, they worked with a large group of local actors on the different Commedia character types, such as the pompous captain, the flirtatious Brighella, the servant known as Zanni or the bloated Doctor. Most of the characters wear distinctive masks, speak in specific tones and move in clearly defined poses and postures.
Those masks can provide a learning curve of their own, as Shawn Hardin, another Berea student, has discovered. He plays Zanni, and his mask has a long nose or beak.
“My character has the longest nose in existence,” Hardin said. “He swings his arms out and I kept hitting my nose, at first. It comes natural now, but you have to be conscious of everyone’s masks.”
Those masks cover the actors’ eyes, which means they are required to do more with the rest of their face and body to convey emotions.
Rehearsals have been a crash course in Commedia, said Chip Plummer. “Everything has its own rhythm. I never had training in comedy and now I see where comedy nowadays derived from. It’s all part of this big old quilt that has shaped modern comedy.”
The actors said the biggest challenge has been learning to be comfortable with the improvisational nature of Commedia.
“It’s the ultimate improv,” Grande said. “Commedia actors have to feel free to make some joke or some invention. The playing is really difficult, but also beautiful. It all has to be fast and you react and joke with the audience.”
The first days of rehearsals focused on improv, which is more about physical or grunting reactions than with actual words.
“When I first started theater, I hated improv. I hated making stuff up on my own,” said high school student Antoinette Gagliano, who plays the young lover Rosalinda. “I wanted people to give me things and that was it. But with all the improvisational games, I feel so much more confident in what I am doing.”
Plummer said he has realized that the improvisation captures the human experience. “The other day during blocking, there was a point where I’m taking this straight line across the stage. It was just quiet. In life, there’s not much silence, so I decided I’m going to hum something. I filled that space and my character seemed to be very pleased with that.”
The cast members said the directors have created an environment where they feel no sense of fear or embarrassment. In the rehearsal room, anything goes, at least once.
“They let you just be silly,” said Patrick Mounce, a student at the University of Central Florida who grew up performing at Venice Theatre. “They let me be a goofball on stage. My favorite quote of theirs is ‘no mind;’ you just go and be free and do your acting.”
They also have to feel comfortable playing with the audience.
“You have to throw yourself 100 percent into this so the audience feels safe,” said Venice Theatre veteran Kaitlyn Terpstra. “A word that Cinzia and Andrea use is complicity. You’re playing with the audience. There’s n
o fourth wall. They’re part of the play.”
It can take years to master the art of Commedia, but the directors said they were impressed with how quickly the young performers are picking up the style.
“It is exciting for us. I saw them from the first lesson two weeks ago and they are growing up and getting better and better,” Grande said. “For me and for Andrea it’s really a wonderful experience, more because we are seeing how they are giving life to the script.”
The directors also are learning from the students.
“We catch the direction from them. They help us, too,” Lattari said.