Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Illusion of Commedia

'A Party of Charlatans in an Italian Landscape' by Karel Dujardin, 1657

'Traditional' Commedia exists more as an illusion in the mind and imagination of the public theatrical consciousness than as any reality in 21st century North America. The intelligent theatrical artist will capitalize on that fact, mixing myth, fantasy, reality, gravity into a melange that will read perhaps truer to a contemporary audience than the most historically accurate performance piece we can deliver.

Arlecchino is now primarily a figure of visual art, not performance art. More people have seen engravings, paintings, ceramic figurines depicting him than will ever see a worthy performance of the character in any reader's lifetime. The visual representations have created a new mythology in the mind of our potential audience, and the theater practitioner is wise to be conscious of the new mythology and make choices that both confirm and deny the preconceptions. Confirming them gives your audience a sense of familiarity and recognition that a Renaissance audience would have had with the characters. Finding useful times to deny them is useful for surprise, alienation, and frankly, instruction. Not to encourage preachiness, but the audience should learn something about the art-form, dammit.

So we have choices to make about our visual representations based on preconceptions gleaned from figurines and diner placemats. But what of the sound of the commedia? Callot's engravings don't speak. How best to create the sound of these characters?

What about venue? Should today's representations of 'traditional' CDA be performed outdoors under the sun, or indoors in a well-equipped theater with lots of blue light and surround sound?

Pierrot is another consideration. I think Barry Grantham says it best in his book Playing Commedia: "Pierrot is a very important part of the communal psyche and there is no reason why he should not be embraced in the new Commedia. There are, however, dangers; the spirit with which he has been imbued since his inception is so powerful, so all-pervasive, that there is a chance that he can infect the other masks with a virus of melancholia quite alien to their bright natures."

As we all continue to study, practice and form our own ideas about Commedia, the Illusion of Commedia will be a consideration to any artist looking to bring his or her work to the public at large. However, it must be used intelligently to enhance our work, not to dilute our own theatrical power. Ask all of the questions, and find for your own aesthetic, your audience's aesthetic, the most interesting answers. Have fun.

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