nytheatre.com review by Jeff Lewonczyk
August 15, 2004
Ah, commedia dell’arte, the earthy comedic art form of the people (albeit the Italian people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries): what better tool with which to prod at the vanities and obsessions of the simultaneously funny/scary modern world we live in? After all, when performed with the proper combination of breakneck abandon, rigid mastery of craft, and perverse imagination, little presented on a stage can be more sublime.
And so I’ll get it out on the table: Saint Arlecchino, despite many promising moments, never quite reaches sublime. Nevertheless, it’s an admirable, ambitious effort, and a great introduction to some of the art form’s immortal stock characters and situations.
The piece’s ambition, truth be told, is one of its greatest obstacles Rather than focus on a single scenario, the script (lovingly constructed by Lynn Berg, who also plays Arlecchino) throws in everything but the cookery washbasin, never dwelling on any of its three main plots or dozen subplots long enough for the farcical machinations to carry much weight. The main catalyst of events is that Pantalone, the stingy patriarch, wishes to marry Rose, a lovely young woman who’s pledged herself to Jesus, and so decides to get himself elected Pope. Meanwhile, Pietro, a more suitable paramour, decides that the way to Rose’s heart is through sainthood, and so enlists the tutelage of the skeezy Saint Sithney to achieve his result. Meanwhile Arlecchino, Pantalone’s happy-go-lucky servant, also aspires to sainthood, in order to cash in on the easy life in heaven. Add to this the twenty-odd other characters who pop in and out of the action at various times, and you can see how the story might be a bit tricky to follow.
But as any commedia aficionado will tell you, plots are just a flimsy excuse to shuttle back and forth between the lazzi (Italian for “funny bits”). And under Eric Davis’s direction, it is these comic set pieces that give Saint Arlecchino its twisted comic momentum—pieces such as Arlecchino’s discovery (with St. Nicholas—yes, that one) of dead babies being sold as pork, and Pantalone’s attempts to drink a goblet of pus in order to win over the rabble. Though there are more pointed references to contemporary events (Il Capitano, a military blowhard, offers to help Pantalone by storming the Holy Land, unleashing a torrent of Rumsfeldisms in the process), it is the play’s more darkly whimsical moments that remind us how strange the world is, and how strange it’s always been.
Tying the piece together is Audrey Crabtree as Sister Betty, a brittle harridan of a nun who uses the examples of the characters to instruct the audience on proper morality. When commedia’s life-above-all spirit exposes the cracks in her acrid spirituality, she threatens, but doesn’t quite manage, to take the play hostage. Similarly, Saint Arlecchino’s flaws cannot prevent it from conveying its infectious attitude—a little more spontaneity, polish, and imagination might bring it within reach of the sublime.