January 28, 2016
Commedia dell’arte, the popular form of Italian theater that reached the height of its popularity in the mid-17th century, holds a special place in our imagination, and has inspired artists working across time, and in different art forms, from Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky to Christopher Wheeldon. Some of its better known characteristics include stock characters and an improvisational method – part scripted, part riff – where players and audiences interact, adding unpredictability to its appeal. Another salient feature of commedia is the license for pushing the limits of decorum – and in this production, the actors go the extra mile: they are ribald, raucous, and at times unnerving, knowing how to shock and amuse at the same time.
Commedia dell’Artichoke’s contemporary setting is in a New York pizza shop, giving us an “outrageous take on timeless themes including running a small business and chasing the American dream.” We are offered pizza and a beer to take inside the theater, where tables are arranged around a small rectangular stage, immediately breaking the fourth wall with the business of eating. The ever-present specter of a rise in rent (“one dollar more than you can afford!”) which threatens Pulcinella’s small pizza business (brilliantly played by Carter Gill) provides the impetus for variously hilarious as well as disgusting scenes. The traditional grotesque commedia masks worn by the actors take a bit of getting used to, and at one point, “Capitana” (played by the gloriously loud and brash Alexandra Henrikson) asserts her authority by slowly inserting her huge witch-like nose into the mouth of Tartaglia (the fearful Tommy Russell). The moment was lengthy and disturbing, and the audience in the Gene Frankel Theater seemed to freeze in utter horror as they witnessed that violation.
The audience also seemed generally less inclined to interact and participate in the proceedings than 17th-century Italian audiences probably did. One could see people shrinking away when approached, and I wondered whether the semi-anonymity and the lack of physical interaction in our screen-dominated lives has rendered us impotent to participate fully in such an exchange – whether the comedic and transgressive nature of that dynamic from long ago is simply lost in a world of free speech and instant access to all manner of appalling ideology and behavior on the internet. In Commedia dell’Artichoke, we had the chance to experience what was an oddly appealing, sometimes perplexing mix of past and present – but as the shock and humor wore off, one became more aware of a loss with the pass.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson