Thomas Burns Scully
Commedia dell’arte, particularly in Western Theatre, survive mostly in the classroom these days. As a mid-semester project for High School theatre students, as an optional course for college theatre majors, or as performance exercise for drama school actors, it lives on in an educational after-life. However, it’s easy to forget how important this theatrical form once was. Commedia actors were some of the first to organize, to view acting as a profession and a craft. Modern improv, variety and sketch shows can trace their roots directly back to Commedia. Contemporary stand-up, musicals, and straight plays all have a little Commedia DNA running through their bloodstream. Genealogically, Commedia is the performer’s Queen Victoria, Grandmother (or at least Great Aunt) of all Europe (or theatre). It seems sad then, that, in the West, Commedia is generally viewed as a museum piece. Particularly when it still lives and thrives in countries like Italy. But then that’s the commercial theatre for you, people don’t want to pay $15 to go out and watch actors pratting about in ridiculous masks and Italian accents. Or do they? Enter: ‘The Commedia Rapunzel’ at the NYC Fringe Festival.
‘The Commedia Rapunzel’ is a new Commedia play aimed at a family audience. Written by Sam LaFrage and performed by ‘The Spaghetti and Meatball Players’, ‘Commedia Rapunzel’ is, as the title suggests, a retelling of the familiar fairy-tale in a distinct Commedia fashion. The usual Comedia characters: Arlecchino (LaFrage), Columbina (Natasha Nightingale), Rosetta (Billie Aken-Tyers), Pulcinella (Conor McGuigan), Pantelone (Andy Dispensa) and Zanni (Joe McGurl) all take on different roles in the story, and tell it with varying levels of professional competence. As you can imagine, a descent into ridiculousness follows.
‘Rapunzel’ is a lot of fun. Let’s get that out of the way first off. You can bring your kids to this, and you’ll all get a good laugh out of it. The jokes are funny, and they play to all levels. In keeping with Commedia tradition, the gags are born out of physical ridiculousness, and over-the-top characterization. For the smart, discerning, NYC crowd there are also savvy pop-culture references, spontaneous cheesy musical numbers, and off-the-wall gags about Cynthia Nixon. If these are your only concerns, then read no further, this show is for you, digesting anything beyond this point would be so many spoilers. For my part though, I haven’t crowbarred in nearly enough hyperbole, so that’s what I’m going to work on for the next few paragraphs…
The show has a pleasant, ragamuffin feel to it, not unlike the Muppet Show. This comparison holds firm the more you look at it (Perhaps because The Muppets are often, essentially, a puppet Commedia act). Arlecchino and co are group of lovable misfits who aren’t nearly qualified enough to be doing what they are doing, and yet they fight through the chaos to do it anyway. The opening of the show is particularly Muppet-esque. Via the theatre’s speaker system we are greeted with a ridiculously bombastic opening; but when the overture finishes, the stage is free of actors. And stays that way. For a good while. Then the cast steadily trickles in, trying to find their seats in the audience, not realizing that they are supposed to be performing. They shout angrily at the stage and chat amusingly with the audience as they wait for the show to start, before suddenly realizing what they are supposed to be doing and leaping in to action. This is representative of the mood of the show: the pretense of complete disorganization, masking well-rehearsed comedic precision.
‘Rapunzel’s cast are, by and large, excellent. Clearly well-familiar with the tropes of Commedia, and in possession of the ludicrous amounts of energy necessary for pulling them off. However, there are occasions where some of them could do with being miked. The YMCA space they are performing in seems to eat sound, and when trying to compete with music from the speakers (which surround the auditorium) you can hear their voices straining. Those same speakers are clearly in need of replacement. The ramshackle, “let’s do the show right here!” nature of the Fringe means that things like this sometimes happen. It’s almost charming, but when the sound is constantly clipping, and you can hear bits of the speakers falling off during the show, it distracts you from what your supposed to be focusing on. It’s no reflection on the actors, they are entirely functional, capable performers, but circumstances work against them at a few points.
Minor technical gripes aside, I distinctly enjoyed ‘Commedia Rapunzel’. It’s a likably silly send-up of a hammy old favorite. ‘Spaghetti and Meatball’s house style of contemporized Commedia stays true to its roots, without being afraid to throw in modernity where it will help the story. The show comes in at a solid hour and a bit, making it ideal for younger children. Sometimes it feels rough round the edges, sometimes the gags aren’t quite thick and fast enough, but never so much that it bores you. Besides, what’s a Fringe show without a few imperfections? ‘Commedia Rapunzel’ is good, solid family entertainment, and one of the better shows in this years New York Fringe. I strongly suggest you give it a look. The Commedia lives again.
‘The Commedia Rapunzel’ has three shows remaining:
Thursday, August 20th - 2:00 PM
Saturday, August 22nd - 3:30 PM
Wednesday, August 26th - 6:30 PM
Tickets available at fringenyc.org/special-events/fringejr/
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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