Theater Review: The Venetian Twins — Commedia dell’arte Done Hilariously Right

While by no means the headiest permutation of commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare & Company’s production of The Venetian Twins is skillful as anything a commedia enthusiast might hope to see.

The Venetian Twins by Carlo Goldoni. Directed by Jenna Ware. Presented by Shakespeare and Company at the Rose Footprint Theatre/Bankside, Lenox, MA, through August 27.

By Ian Thal

Alexandra Lincoln, Caroline Calkins and Robert Lohbauer cavort in Shakespeare and Co.’s “The Venetian Twins.” Photo: Enrico Spada.

Ask those who care about commedia dell’arte what defines the comic form, and there will be little consensus about what characterizes what they love, beyond agreeing that it emerged in mid-fifteenth-century Italy and has had a significant influence on European art. Shakespeare, Dario Fo, Punch & Judy, and the Harlequinade drew on commedia, as have Italian opera repertoire, Molière, and modernists like Stravinsky, Kenneth Anger, and Michael Moorcock. Over the centuries the form has changed, to the point that even scholarly reconstructions of the original commedia dell’arte come in all shapes and sizes.

Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) had an odd relationship to this tradition. As a playwright, he saw himself on a mission to replace the commedia with comedy that proffers a more classical form: Instead of actors improvising upon a loosely sketched scenario, Goldoni wrote three-act scripts that adhered to the Aristotelian unities and even wrote librettos for the emerging genre of opera buffa. Still, though he rejected improvisation, Goldoni preserved many of the iconic characters of the commedia for centuries. Ironically, theater students first encounter commedia in the classroom by way of Goldoni—his romp Servant of Two Masters is found on many American syllabi.

In comparison to that better-known play, The Venetian Twins (1745) is rarely performed in English. (A translation is hard to come by; luckily I brought along a companion who had seen a production in Venice last year.) The premise is simple—courtship and mistaken identity. The virtuous and urbane, Venetian youth Tonino (David Joseph) is in Verona to elope with his beloved Beatrice (Kelly Galvin); however, due to an altercation over a matter of honor, he must pretend to leave town. He takes up the identity of his identical twin brother, Zanetto (also played by Joseph), who he assumes to be in Bergamo. Of course, this being a comedy, Zanetto is also in Verona to court Rosauar (Alexandra Lincoln) and true to his zany name and his place of residence (for Bergamo has a reputation for fools) is simpleminded and uncouth.

The action becomes ever more dizzying as friends, rivals, lovers, and servants blame Tonino for Zanetto’s outrages, while Zanetto is expected to behave with the courtesy of his gentlemanly brother. Of course, commedia, even the reformist commedia of Goldoni, is all about the frienzied, slapstick farce. Director Jenna Ware and fight choreographer Jonathon Croy collaborated in their free adaptation of the original, so the unity of the script and the mise-en-scène is nearly seamless: there are a number of memorably hilarious tableaux, including a recurring one in which Brighella (Janel Miley) provides an oracular back story to the accompaniment of foley effects performed by some of the supporting cast, as well as elaborate visual lazzi that set up later plot points. Striking use is made of the unconventional space: a simple stage under a small circus tent with only the late afternoon sun for lighting. The players not only use the aisles but can be spied darting about in the surrounding grass.

David Joseph and the cast of “The Venetian Twins “— the players serve up commedia fit for its enthusiasts. Photo: Enrico Spada

This collaboration between Ware and Croy no doubt helped shape and sharpen the actors inventive, physical approach to their roles. Stock lovers, in part because they are written as vapid, are often performed as if interchangeable (see most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for an example.) However, these inamorati are anything but bland. Much praise much deservedly goes to David Joseph, who physically distinguishes between two brothers of vastly different character, but we also see Justin Weaks as Florindo, Tonino’s Foppish friend and rival for Beatrice’s hand, embellish every exit and entrance with a balletic leap. Rosaura’s cousin Lelio (Thomas Randle) exhibits such over-the-top zealousness that he routinely seeks the help of pagan gods even as he crosses himself.

Even more impressively, Croy goes so far as to give each of the male inamorati their own distinct fighting style; every sword fight (of which there are several) takes a different comic arc. Likewise, the female inamorati, whose main job is to be upset by the maddening behavior of their supposed fiancees, display their consternation in distinctive manners: Rosaura either lashes out violently in frustration or cries with a broken heart over a man she only met that day, while Beatrice alternately hyperventilates into a paper bag or comes close to fainting.

In commedia the plots always revolve around the fates of the lovers, their rivals, and the older authority figures, but the antics of the clownish servants, collectively known as the zanni, are a major attraction. Given her wild red hair and malleable face, Emily Rose Ehlinger’s Arlecchino (Zanetto’s servant) channels the spirit of Lucille Ball, albeit a Lucy who has learned to hold a guitar like a rock’ n’ roller. Her Arlecchino isn’t quite as mad or foolish as most zany second bananas, but Ehlinger has a number of fine moments of physical comedy.

The real standout amongst the zanni is Brittany Morgan as Beatrice’s servant, Tarantella. Morgan’s mostly silent clowning is based on a solid foundation of mime, making use of both furious movements and momentary immobility for maximum effect. She suggests Harpo Marx in her surreal use of props, taking simple gags and elaborating them to increasingly absurd complexity. That said, given that the male zanni are played as male by two capable women, it seems odd that the traditionally roguish male Brighella is made a helpful zannia (at least she is clearly identified with Bergamo).

Alexandra Lincoln and Kelly Gavin with David Joseph in “The Venetian Twins.” Photo: Enrico Spada

The songs by Andy Talen entertain: the show opens with a musical exhortation to turn off cell phones, keep feet out of the aisles, and visit the show’s sponsors—and there is a charming courtship song in which Arlecchino and Rosaura’s servant, Columbina, note that neither has any extra body parts or other grotesque physical anomalies. David Joseph also shows his musical versatility: Tonino sings opera while brother Zanetto sings country.

While by no means the headiest permutation of commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare & Company’s production is skillful as anything a commedia enthusiast might hope to see.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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