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March 1, 2001 Students take a crack at commedia dell'arte




by Anna Bratulic

Commedia dell’arte is a highly physical theatre genre that keeps coming back, because it’s just so much fun. It will be revived once again March 8, when the Theatre Department mounts a production of Carlo Goldini’s The Fickle Woman in the F.C. Smith Auditorium.

The story revolves around a rich, young woman, Rosaura, who is unable to decide which of her three suitors to marry. The decision is further complicated by her tendency to change her mind, often for trivial reasons.

By the time Venetian playwright Goldini had written The Fickle Woman (La Donna Volubile) in 1750, the heyday of commedia dell’arte had long passed. The theatre form, which originated in Italy in the 1500s, was heavily improvised, with only general directions provided.

Its dwindling respectability, especially among the intelligentsia, was due to the growing vulgarity of the pieces and a sense that theatre could be much better if actors read from a pre-written text.

By the mid-18th century, it was felt that actors were losing their knack to improvise as many were now getting used to memorizing lines.

Director Jean-Francois Gagnon took a moment just before rehearsal to explain where the playwright was coming from.

“Goldoni was trying to distance himself from the genre despite the fact that he used traditional commedia dell’arte texts. People liked the genre, and to use elements other than those typically found in it was often risky.”

In keeping with the commedia dell’arte tradition of performing in public squares or spaces, a wooden stage with a simple painting as a backdrop is set up in the F.C. Smith lobby, where the play will be presented.

The genre also uses a lot of stock characters. There is usually a bombastic doctor (Il Dottore) or lawyer reciting endless monologues that are peppered with Latin; a rich, old man (Pantalone) with a beak-like nose who is utterly clueless about the goings-on of his scheming daughter or niece; and servants, either smart-mouthed or dimwitted, who always manage to save the day.
Grandiose gestures and the use of masks makes rehearsing for a commedia dell’arte piece a little different from rehearsing for, say, a realistic play by Ibsen or Chekhov.

“Commedia dell’arte demands a physical approach and offers a certain visual style to the audience,” Gagnon said, adding that this is especially true for masks. “A character has an intention, but if the mask wearer only says the words with the intention in mind, it won’t be enough — there must be a physical implication as well.”

The challenge for Gagnon is to get his student actors to express their characters through both their voices and their movements.

For example, the smart-mouthed lady-in-waiting of the indecisive Rosaura greets her mistress with a general air of disdain, hands on her hips and an offensively propped-up behind.
The Fickle Woman, by Carlo Goldini, runs from March 8 to 18 in the lobby of the F.C. Smith Auditorium. Tickets are 5$ for Concordia students.