DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
Improv comedy is an art form that transcends any particular time period. Whether it be in 15th century Italy in a town square or in the present day on “Saturday Night Live” in New York at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, people have been making up jokes and bits on stage for generations.
That tradition continues as Chautauqua Theater Company’s Commedia continues its run at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
The show is inspired by the Italian art form of commedia dell’arte, known for its stock character ensemble and masks the actors wear.
“It’s such an ensemble show,” said CTC Conservatory Actor Justin Von Stein, who portrays El Capitano. “You don’t want to take away from all the other actors being able to establish their characters. We have such a short time to do that. In the olden days, when commedia dell’arte was all the rage in Italy, the people had the characters’ backstories already. We are having to establish who they are and continue the plot of the story.”
Von Stein has four years’ worth of experience in improv with his college troupe, but that experience has provided him both advantages and disadvantages.
“You’re able to think on your feet faster and get a vibe of what people generally find funny,” Von Stein said. “I’ve done so many improv shows that I know, like, if I do this thing, people are going to laugh. Maybe sometimes they don’t. I think the biggest (difference) is the age gap between the actors and our audience. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just two different cultures and what they find funny, and we’re having to adapt to that.”
Commedia dell’arte and improv do have similarities, but Von Stein learned that the former involves more, including the masks, as well as having to play to the audience.
“(Commedia dell’arte) takes years studying in Italy, there’s schools you can go to now and people spend large chunks of their life perfecting the art form,” Von Stein said. “We didn’t do that. We’ve been doing this for two weeks.”
Walker Borba, who plays Brighella, also has experience in improv. He believes that when he prepares jokes, they land differently than when he makes them on the fly.
“Every time I prep, it does not go as well as when I just walk out there and see what the audience and what their vibe is, and speak to them in that moment,” Borba said. “Then I can make them laugh, and we can have a good time.”
Borba is the son of CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba, so Walker was conscious of the fact that some may question his spot in the production. However, he has worked relentlessly at his craft both in high school and college.
“I had enough faith in myself and I’ve done things like this in the past,” Borba said. “I know I can do this, I know I have this skill. I was honestly super nervous, now that I think back on it, to go into the room and see what the next level was, because it is a higher level of acting training that I’m currently in. But I think it is just about 100% commitment, listening to what they’re telling you and internalizing those lessons. It’s just another acting class. This is what I want to do. This is my passion.”
Audience members can expect whatever Commedia show they come to see to be different than any other one.
“I think (audiences are) shocked by how different it is every single time,” Borba said. “I think they can expect some jokes that are just going to make them laugh, and I think that they can expect some jokes that are going to test the limits of what they find funny at the same time. That’s kind of what it’s about, because we’re just going out there with no plan and saying things as they come to our mind. … If we didn’t get them with one joke, hopefully we get them with the next one.”
Borba says that each show is a modern demonstration of the art form of commedia dell’arte and entertainment.
“It’s a modernized demonstration of what commedia dell’arte is in that we’re making fun of a lot and we make a lot of topical references,” Borba said. “Our plot is based around a plague, which obviously we are experiencing right now. But back in the 1600s, that’s exactly what they would have been doing. They would have been talking about whatever the current events were that were going on at the time. We’ve committed to historical reinterpretation.”
Von Stein could not decide on whether comedic or dramatic roles were more challenging. He believes, though, that it’s easier to decipher if he is doing a good job with comedy.
“If I do a drama, I’ll finish the show, and I’ll never for the most part know how it went,” Von Stein said. “There’s no way of telling that because if you ask someone, of course, they’re going to say you did a good job. “Comedy on the other hand, if you did good, you can hear the people laugh. That’s how you know if you do bad comedy.”