Minneapolis, Guthrie Theatre
November 9 – 20
Commedia dell’arte is the Italian theatrical tradition upon which slapstick and every physical comedian of the 20th century, from Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges to Lucille Ball and Bill Irwin, are indebted. The lineage began in the 16th century, was codified in the 18th by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni (and others) and has been well-preserved by the Piccolo Teatro di Milano.
Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters features the stock dell’arte characters in a lengthy, stock plot. Think The Marriage of Figaro without the arias, although there is plenty of singing and incidental music. Harlequin, a familiar figure from clown history and Picasso paintings, may be at the center of this play, but as a servant, he is actually subservient to the broader plot fixtures involving love, marriage, concealed identity and lunch. True to its Italian roots, the play is practically dripping in food themes. Indeed, the character of Brighella, the comic innkeeper, seems more restaurateur or perhaps baker, both in costume and demeanor. And part of Arlecchino’s traditional role is an ever-present hunger.
Ferruccio Soleri plays the title role, and he is considered the leading Arlecchino anywhere. It is a part he first performed in 1960 and he continues to inhabit the role with an impish joy that may look tried, but definitely rings true. His goofy pratfalls and slightly pathetic simpishness reads through his body language.
Indeed, after a half hour of strict devotion to the supertitles that keep flashing, opera-style over the proscenium arch and onto two video monitors on the sides of the stage, it becomes less worrisome to miss a few minutes of Italian in translation, and easier to go with the flow. You can pick up on practically all of this without language—that’s the beauty of this kind of comedy. It’s also what will drive those more interested in character study and psychological theater a bit bonkers, or bored to tears. This is a three-hour show–again, a lot like an opera without the arias or any grandiosity at all. Commedia dell’arte is the sit-com of its day.