Commedia dell'Arte has its roots in Republican Rome, where "stock" characters were created for popular farces. Over time, this tradition continued until the development of Commedia dell'Arte during the Renaissance. Ultimately, this became the ancestor of improvisational theatre. We can see the results today in shows such as Saturday Night Live, and Second City TV.
Stock characters include Pantalone ("Big Britches"), a miserly Venetian merchant; Arlecchino ("Harlequin"), dressed in brightly colored clothing; Pedrolino, with a painted white face; Dottore ("Doctor"), a lawyer or doctor; Brighella ("Bruiser"), a scoundrel; and Il Capitano, a bragging soldier, often portrayed as Spanish. Many of the characters wear masks. Arlecchino sometimes carries a big stick made of two wood strips fastened together, which makes a loud "slap" when it connects with someone (usually his/her rear end). Now you know the origins of "slapstick" comedy.
Like slapstick, its descendant, Commedia dell'Arte features broad, physical comedy. Couple this with audience input and it would sound like anything might happen, but there are guidelines. The action and dialogue are not written down, however there is a structured storyline called a "scenario." This outlines the events and the behavior of the characters towards each other, but doesn't tell the actors what to do or say. The scenario for Sausage! was provided by i Sebastiani Troupe, a group that has been performing since the 1990's.
In Sausage!, the daughter of Pantalone is in love with Orazio, the son of Dottore Graziano. However, the Graziano family has no money, so there is no way Pantalone would marry his dear Isabella to Orazio. However, the mothers of the young lovers have an idea: Pantalone's wife will "borrow" some money from her husband's strongbox and "loan" it to the Grazianos without Dottore's or Pantalone's knowledge. Add in confused servants, delayed messages, a con artist, a swaggering Spanish captain, and a 500-pound box of sausage and the result is uproarious.
In the WSU production, part of the physical comedy showed up in the casting of the young lovers: Isabella (Claire Gerig) was very tall, while her beau, Orazio (Casey Bagnall), was much shorter. This made for some interesting moments during their overemphasized amorous groping. At one point, Orazio leapt up, encircling Isabella's waist with his legs and she carried him around like that for a few moments, mid-kiss.
Gerig and Bagnall played their characters well. They both managed to maintain a naivete that was endearing and didn't decline into schmaltziness, while staying this side of overtly steamy.
Pantalone's (Trevor Comstock) character was also quite physical in its manifestation; since he spent the entire play hunkered over like an old man. I remember thinking to myself, "poor guy, he must be miserable." However, if he was uncomfortable at all, Comstock didn't let it show. He carried Pantalone off seamlessly, not losing his grating voice or his tottering stride at any time.
The character that seemed to require the most physical space in the play was Il Capitano Spaventi, played marvelously by Damian Padilla. When he swaggered onstage, Il Capitano announced (in a thick Spanish accent), "your favor-eet charactair in dee play has arrived." Padilla kept up the braggadocio admirably from then on out.
Besides the physical requirements of the show, some characters had to be projected from behind masks. It is a testimonial to the success of the actors in this endeavor when they removed their masks and looked completely different from how you imagined they would. I was surprised that, underneath, they looked nothing like who they played. Luckily, they were much more attractive as themselves!
The Commedia dell'Arte style is designed to draw on the strengths of the actors at characterization and their ability to work as a team. The WSU troupe should pride themselves in beautifully honoring this tradition.
REVIEW By Helen Barnesrnes