The Servant of two Masters at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival took the stage in the manner of a melting parfait during last week’s mini heat wave.

Miserly fathers called Pantalone, pompous latin-spouting medics, a quartet of lovers – one silly pair and one romantic – the inn-keeper Brighella, the crafty servant Trufaldino and his female counterpart Smeraldina, lots of Lazzis, sequences of bits, takes, asides, and one-two-three gags, and there you have the crazy zany world of Commedia Dell’Arte.

Commedia took its rise from the Italian street theatre of the late 16th and early 17th century, by the time Carlo Goldini was writing in the mid 18th century the form had got a lot more, well, formal. Which is perhaps why in this show, I’m wearing a wig which is first cousin to a dead sheep. Or maybe it’s because whenever they need a rotund character man with dead-sheep-wearing abilities McPhillamy’s name rises first in the rolodex, second time round in garb like this here at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (first time was two years ago in Amadeus). It’s wigs like these that give us the phrase: pull the wool over one’s eyes.

But my first time ever on an out door stage. We are playing at the Greek amphitheatre in the grounds of the Convent of St. Elizabeth. I’m delighted to report that it’s been a hugely pleasant experience. And I can say that in spite of the sun, the heat, the bugs which safely graze, and the aeroplanes which fly over from the nearby flying school about every ten minutes.

How so pleasant in spite of the inconveniences listed above? The theatre sits on the side of a high slope looking across a wide wooded valley. During production week when endless technical rehearsals involving sets and props, lights and sound, intersperse with director’s minutiae regarding staging, text, and timing, I bought an inflatable kiddie pool and filled it with water. Pink faced cast members would appear and dunk head or whole body. That helped in the heat management. The possibility of summer rain adds excitement. Don’t get me wrong I still enjoy the job, but there’s nothing as interesting as free money, as in, in this case getting paid for not acting if the show gets rained off.

This amphitheatre was built in the 1930s. The risers on the three aisle stairways are concrete. And the steps where the audience sits are turf with a concrete lip (not all that comfortable). The semi-circular shape of the auditorium and the rise in it means that if you stand upstage centre, you can whisper and be heard. A happy acoustic rarely found in indoor performing spaces outside the classic Victorian horseshoe shapes that still grace most of London’s West End.

My guy, Il Dottore to give him his traditional Commedia name, is a pompous spouter of ersatz classical language, usually getting the latin wrong and never knowing what he’s talking about. As a sometime dabbler in Sanskrit and a current student of contemporary Chinese, and traveling that road from the total knowledge one had in youth to the growing uncertainty of middle age, I feel I can relate to this archetype. Il Dottore has also stayed too long at fair like Sir Toby Belch, but his faux classical erudition also makes him a close relation to the latin scholar Holofernes in Loves Labour’s Lost.

To say to a company of contemporary actors: ‘right, Commedia Dell’Arte. Begin now, go.’ would be on a par with requiring them to emulate a troupe of Kabuki or Noh players. Folk study for years to reproduce the traditional comic physicalities of these characters, and there is a strong box of traditional gags and tricks some of which require equally long and diligent study. We spent a morning’s rehearsal adjusting our pelvic tilt, turning feet in and out, looking left while walking right, and playing strong simple intentions based on universal human needs: food, money, sex.

Fascinating though this exploration was, we were never going to achieve anything more than a received reproduction of forms that none of us had ever experienced first hand, nor understood from the inside. The first weeks of our production went in the direction of say Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy. But right in the middle of the rehearsal process, the production took a turn toward the style comedies of the Restoration.

One of my early theatre going experiences was when I saw She Stoops to Conquer at the Young Vic Theatre in London. A young Nicky Henson in his virile prime played Marlowe and it was a revelation to me that an actor could be so juicy while spouting formal text. It was one of the performances that made me want to become an actor – another was Tom Courteney in Brandon Thomas’s stand alone late 19th century smash hit, Charley’s Aunt. Congreve’s masterpiece, and say Sheridan’s, The Rivals, and many other plays of the late 18th century live at a higher level of verbal dexterity than Goldoni’s plays – at least as far as scholars can tell. Goldoni wrote in 18th century Venetian dialect and what certain lines mean is a subject of academic treatise.

So our production is a hybrid. But the story works, and if the weather doesn’t deliver wilting heat, and if there are sufficient numbers (audiences need the confidence of other people’s amusement) then it’s a very enjoyable evening under the stars.

Il Dottore is the alter-ego of Pantalone, played brilliantly in our production by Bill Metzo. During rehearsals our double act argument scenes were referred to as: the ‘old men’, I remonstrated with our young director over this title, and we settled on a comprise where these scenes and the actors playing went by the name ‘Living National Treasure’. However, I still wonder in Commedia fashion, whether enough diet and exercise could recapture the vigour of my earlier youth and change the casting to some other archetype… watch this space.


May 2010

The first time I went to the Chinese embassy in New York to apply for a visa, I gave my profession as ‘writer’. A hopeful move on my part probably influenced by some pop metaphysician – one of the ones that tell you to announce your intentions to the universe and then watch happily as the stars line up – the lady behind the glass paused.

‘What kind writer? Politcal?’

It crossed my mind to quip as follows: ‘Political!? No way. I don’t even vote.’

This was another one on the long list of witty things I could have said but didn’t. Perhaps it was for the best this time as a protest non vote cuts little ice with someone from a country where voting is not widely practised.

So far so good, but immersed as I am in a fascinating volume called ‘When China Rules The World’, and noting a well-observed article in the New York Times commenting on the increasing compliance of anyone with any profile when pronouncing publically on China, I will use more restraint than I’d like but less than is prudent when talking about the man at the end of this month’s entry here.

What has caught my interest this May is the complex question of presence onstage. I began rehearsal three days ago for a play called Servant of two Masters by Goldini. When I tell people this, sometimes they say ‘Ah Commedia dell’arte isn’t it.’

And I say, ‘yes.’

And usually in the above exchange there is a tacit agreement that we actually know what that means.

My fellow cast members on this one are a delightful, gifted, and above all comically talented group. There is as much humourous ability per square inch of actor in this cast than in any I’ve shared a stage with these thirty years – with the possible exception of British actor Martin Chamberlain who could draw a laugh from a dead man – digression here; on the second preview of The Constant Wife in the last season at the old Guthrie in Minneapolis, one of the audience members did actually pass on in about the middle of the performance. His family graciously assured the theatre that for this gentleman, a life-long theatre going enthusiast, there could not have been a better way to go, and as that play was a comedy, one hopes that he died laughing.

So I’m delighted that the cast is made up of funny people. Our director is an enthusiast and has studied Commedia formally. But do any of us actually know what the form demands? Not so much. Stock characters abound everywhere in life of course. I happen to play a doctor in the piece, and given the current vogue in television advertising for male enhancement or readiness or whatever they call the hard-on drugs they peddle these days, I guess my best move is to prepare a list of asides based on making the crucial phone call at 4 hours of tumnescence precisely. Not 3.59 because should one subside in the final crucial minute, and call out the medics unnecessarily surely (and even after healthcare reform) you could be letting yourself in for a lot of deductible. Not 4.01 neither, because then a clever lawyer could litigate on the basis on irresponsible delay. No, 4 hours is the decreed exact threshold. With Servant of two Masters if comic ability meets viable comic mode, we’ll have a show, but if the forms are too esoteric, not the funniest people in the world will raise laughter.

I took in a performance of the little-known-here French farce (ish) play, Dr. Knock, produced off-Braodway at The Mint. Written 7 or 8 decades ago, still a perennial in France and a money maker when managements are looking to pack them in, this too, surely a play for our times. If I was a psychologist (which I’m not), I might say that in the closing days of Western Patriality, folk cling like ivy to oak, to the idea that the animus authority figures of the professions can show the way. Madison Avenue understands this thoroughly and three words are uttered in paid-for public airspace more frequently than any others: doctor, your, ask. Not necessarily in that order.

The Mint theatre in Manhattan N.Y. has the most fabulous policy of producing the lessor known works of the cannon, and there is often some undiscovered gem on offer there. Jenny Harmon gave a quintessential concierge in act three, the star of act one was the motor car, and fine ensemble comedy throughout.

Favourable review for Dr. Knock in the kingmaker New York Times, but a love letter of a review for Gabriel at the Atlantic – a production I have watched from the sidelines because of my affiliation with the actress playing Mrs Lake – result: instant sellout. I have seen excellent productions closed or clobbered by poor adverse, so it’s nice to witness a positive effect. But is it really sensible that the fate of many months’ work from skilled professionals, and multiple six or seven figure investment, hangs in the balance and is subject to the mood of one man? Maybe it would work if that man were the Dalai Lama, who played to a packed house at Radio City Music Hall this month.

His Holiness pottered on to the stage and did a few details of outrageous schtick; pretending to be surprised the audience was there, pretending to forget his homage to the Buddha, and at the lunchtime break waving a dismissing hand at the crowd. He got laughs each time. I’ve been a fan for 40 years and this was the first time I had seen him. The body of the show was a technical discourse on an ancient text. Challenging for some of us to follow(I admit to dropping off for a few minutes).

The 14th Dalai Lama is a living testament to grace under pressure. To forbearance under abuse. To patience in adversity and strength in loss. And the healing power of laughter. If I ever get into some challenge that seems overwhelming I try to remember him. But apart from everything else that is incredible about him, the man knows the human Commedia and he knows what he is doing on a stage.