nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 2, 2005
According to program notes, the story told in Commedia Dell'Artemisia is more or less true: Artemisia Gentileschi, the teenage daughter of a successful Italian painter, was raped by one of her father's colleagues, Agostino Tassi; she gave in to his violent sexual advances only because he promised to marry her. When he didn't, the elder Gentileschi sued Tassi for violation of his daughter's chastity and reputation.
Commedia dell'arte-inspired farce is not, it would seem, the most obvious choice of theatrical styles to tell such a tale. But that's exactly what Commedia Dell'Artemisia does, recounting the story—in somewhat bowdlerized form—as if it were a short comedy by Moliere, substituting stock characters for the actual personages involved (Pantalone for the father, Columbine for the next-door neighbor, Il Dottore for the judge who hears Gentileschi's lawsuit against Tassi), and incorporating the naughty wordplay and antic slapstick that are this genre's staples. The original script, by Kiran Rikhye, is in rhymed couplets and is mostly good enough to sound like a Wilbur translation of the master; some of the intricate polysyllabic rhymes are especially impressive. The staging, surrounding the audience in the intimate backroom quasi-theatre of CB's Gallery, is dizzying and fun; it's by the show's creator, Jon Stancato, and promises to find its legs as the performers grow accustomed to the space and the rhythms of this complicated, brand-new piece.
So this quirky little show, a sex comedy turned on its head, works on its own terms. Except that fairly early on, we become aware that there's something essentially distasteful—disconcerting, even—about it. Is rape really a subject for bawdy, giddy farce? The answer, clearly, is no; and at the same time, the answer is, alas, yes—rape was and has been the subject of lightheaded entertainment for centuries. This is, I think, the key to this intriguing project of Stolen Chair Theatre Company: by going only a little further than archetypal commedia usually does, Commedia Dell'Artemisia makes some salient points about violence against women and society's culpability thereto. Making an audience think about gender politics in the middle of a raucous seduction scene is undeniably an achievement.
The show also manages more direct satire in its final scene, a perversion of justice disguised as a trial that quickly devolves into a media circus of the sort we can all recognize. Stancato, Rikhye, and their collaborators score some points about reality TV and celebrity-obsession here.
Stancato appears as the foolish, greedy father, and turns in a fine performance that's niftily rooted in movement rather than words. Jon Campbell is appealingly dastardly as Tassi, and Alexia Vernon is effective in the soubrette role of next-door neighbor Tuzia. Jennifer Wren doubles as the title character and the pompous ignoramus judge; she's particularly delightful as the latter.
It all happens in under one hour, and that's including a bizarre little curtain raiser, "The Crazy House," in which Sam Dingman and Benjamin Camp enact true anecdotes from the former's day job as a bellhop. This is the first event of the month-long Stampede Festival, a showcase of under-the-radar theatre that you won't see anywhere else in town. My past experiences at Stampede have taught me that this is where I can go for theatre that will surprise and challenge me in weird and unexpected ways. This off-kilter, stylized, marching-to-its-own-drummer composition feels right at home here.