Thoughts about Commedia dell’arte at UBC

Hours of fun for everyone! Source: UBC Theatre

On October 11th I went to go see the intermediate BFA Acting class perform 2 plays written by Carlo Gozzi: The Three Oranges and The King Stag. The art form of commedia dell’arte is an old one, but quite new to me. The use of masks is similar to that of Noh theatre, where each mask portrays a certain type of character. The masks vary in shape, but the one thing I noticed the most was the width of the eye holes. Minor characters tended to have masks that obscure the actor’s eyes, making it harder to connect with them (which I believe is the point). The only characters that were not masked were female, and two served as love interests to the protagonists whereas two more who were playing the role of Smeraldina.

The overall plot is formulaic and is essentially the same, with only the conflicts and setting modified. This is also because many (if not all) of the characters are stock characters and are constantly being reused.

The production was interesting as it though it showed an old art form, modern elements were added to them, one of which was the complete destruction of the fourth wall, including taking chairs from patrons and handing them props, The two plays were performed on a thrust stage, The production also turned out to definitely be more vulgar than what it is supposed to be, with profanity being thrown out occasionally.

The Three Oranges

This play tells the story of a Prince who is unwell because he is suffering from “terminal hypochondria.” In an effort to cure his son, the King decrees that anyone who is able to make the Prince laugh will be generously rewarded. Brighella and Clarice, however, are waiting for the Prince’s death so that they will be able to take his place and rule. To ensure that, they have collaborated with the witch Fata Morgana, and invite her to the contest. Truffledina, the court jester, is able to get a laugh out of the Prince when she knocks Morgana over, though the witch then curses the prince to fall in love with three specific oranges in the world, all which are conveniently located in the castle of a witch that goes by Creonte. After passing through all the many obstacles, the prince retrieves the oranges, only for Truffledina to cut two open, releasing the maidens inside only for them to die of thirst. The prince then sends the jester off and cuts open the last orange, releasing the princess Ninette (who is played unmasked) who is soon turned into a dove by Smeraldina. At the climax, Ninette is returned to normal.

The play utilises a lot of props to intentionally exaggerate the circumstances to enhance the comedy: the Prince and Truffledina are carried to the castle of Creonte via a spirit that blows them there using an electric fan.

The King Stag

This play tells the story of a good King who is looking for a girl to marry. He had refused the hand of over 5000 women, and his advisor Tartaglia tries to get his daughter Clarice to win the King’s hand, but she is in love with another man named Leandro. Meanwhile, a poor girl who goes by the name of Angela has been selected to have an audience with the King, and she is genuinely in love with the King. When she arrives, the King asks her a few questions with her answers being observed by a magic statue, one of two gifts that he received from a travelling wizard. The statue stays silent throughout the interview and the he is convinced that Angela is the one and takes her hand in marriage.

The real conflict arises when the King is on a hunting trip with Tartaglia, where he divulges the second gift from the wizard: a spell that can send the soul of the user into any corpse, effectively killing them until they utter the words again over their own body. His advisor then seizes this chance and takes over the King’s body and wreaks havoc upon the kingdom until he is stopped by Angela and the King’s ruse.

This play was much longer than the first one, as the first act needed to set up relationships between the characters and how they were invoked in the piece. There were also a lot of both modern and local references, including a nearby pub and a certain show that involves puppets.

Closing

All in all, I enjoyed it immensely. The characters were quite hammy, but given the genre, it was to be expected. I’m looking forward to seeing what the intermediate BFA Acting class will do next.

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