(Petra Academy’s fall play, The Servant of Two Masters, plays Friday and Saturday evening, November 9 and 10, at 7 p.m. Purchase your tickets today at our website or at our front desk, as with only two scheduled performances, they will go quickly!)
Over the past several years of teaching theatre history, I have become fascinated by commedia dell’arte, a Renaissance form of theatre popularized in Italy and toured around Europe by the first professional acting companies. It is theatre in its simplest form, both in structure and in execution.
Actors would play stock characters that are easily recognizable by their masks and improvise a story from a repertoire of stock situations. The main characters included the miserly old merchant Pantalone, the gregarious windbag Dottore, the clever servant Arlecchino, the braggadocios (and often Spanish) Capitano, and two lovers. Additionally there might be other servants or characters who would help fill out a performance. The situations they performed usually involved the two lovers meeting, falling in love, and running into an obstacle such as their parents (Pantalone and Dottore) or the arrival of another suitor (Capitano) but ultimately surmounting that obstacle with the help of a clever and mischievous servant (Arlecchino).
Another interesting fact about commedia is that actors would perform one character throughout their career and then pass it on to their children like an inheritance. This familiarity with one character enabled actors to come up with gags and comedic bits that could be inserted into any performance. And they were capable of playing their character in any given situation, which was important considering the improvised nature of each performance.
What has fascinated me most is the way these simple, improvised performances have influenced some of the greatest playwrights of Western theatre: Molière, William Shakespeare, and Pierre Beaumarchais (best known for the Figaro operas) all adapted commedia characters and plot devices for their shows. One example is the character of Don Armado from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labors Lost. He is a direct representation of the pompous and swaggering Capitano and his simple character lends a great deal to the play.
But more than that, I see the influence of commedia in modern entertainment as well. The plot of most romantic comedies follows the same simple scheme as a commedia performance: two people meet, fall in love, have a conflict that keeps them apart, but surmount the obstacle to live happily ever after. This similar story arc is found in many modern sitcoms such as The Office, Friends, Parks and Recreation, and even Seinfeld.
Sitcoms are like traditional commedia because actors start with a simple character outline such as “the dumb one,” “the neurotic one,” “the witty one,” couple it with a simple show premise such as “coworkers in an office,” or “friends in a big city,” and then go from there. Throughout the course of episodes and seasons the actors begin to embody their characters more and more by developing each character’s mannerisms, quirks, and personality along with expanding the initial premise of the show. And while these are often exaggerations of reality, they are born out of real life situations that are instantly relatable to the audience.
This type of comedy resonates in our culture and many of the characters, lines, and shows have become a part of our social fabric. If Shakespeare and Molière copied commedia for their shows, I imagine it had much the same effect in the 16th century.
In this year’s fall show, The Servant of Two Masters, Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni took the classic characters and situations that both he and the audience were familiar with and wrote them down in order to preserve the spirit and vitality of commedia dell’arte. However, this was 200+ years ago, and we have been faced with the challenge of trying to bridge the gap between an old, unfamiliar play and a modern audience.
Fortunately, because of the relationship between commedia and modern comedy, the gap isn’t as large as it appears, and it was quickly bridged by our student actors; the real challenge has been coaxing the improvisational and physical comedy out of them.
Commedia has always been a difficult form of theatre to perform because it is built around the improvisations and camaraderie of the actors rather than the story itself. Knowing that that was the case, I decided to focus on improvisation with the students as I directed this particular play, giving them the freedom to play with their characters and practice a more improvisational style of acting. Additionally the set design and costuming is simple, the props are minimal, and the blocking is very easy for the purpose of facilitating more improv.
Through the course of our rehearsals, students have been learning more than just their lines and blocking, they’ve been learning the two most important elements of good comedy: listening and being present in the moment. The result is our students have better understanding of comedy and a show that will have our audience (regardless of age) in stitches.
When the curtains open on November 9th and 10th, I hope you’ll join us for a lively and exciting production of The Servant of Two Masters!