DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
Laughter is the best medicine, and Chautauqua Theater Company is giving a dose of improv comedy with their current production of Commedia.
The show, which continues its run at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4 at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt, is based on the Italian artform commedia dell’arte that was popular from the 16th to the 19th century.
Commedia dell’arte was known for its use of masks, stock characters and improv. Conservatory actor Rachael Fox, who portrays Arlecchino, has taken classes on improv and done comedy shows, but this show brought her an entirely new challenge.
“I’m used to working with a script,” Fox said. “I had never done a show without a script. But it was so cool how we came into it. It was so playful, and it was so collaborative, and one of the first things that Andrew (Borba) said he referenced was from a teacher that he had. We have so little time and so we must slow down. I loved starting that way.”
The show was devised by Artistic Director Andrew Borba, the cast members as well as all departments across CTC. Fox enjoyed this process as it felt like they were a true commedia dell’arte troupe. In rehearsal, they would analyze and discuss how each scene had made them feel and what they could do to improve it.
“It feels very fundamental and very old-school,” Fox said. “I’m a sucker for the theater at its root. I love the group coming together and making something; that is so cool to me, because commedia (dell’arte) is so old. It goes back to traveling theater troupes and vagabonds rolling into town, and I’m down for all of that. It was really great to be able to break down to its most basic needs: what do we need, who can help me with this, how can I help you with this, what is the story that we’re telling, and within those parameters, how do we play around?”
Conservatory actor Malachi Beasley, who portrays Pantalone in the show, has treated the run of Commedia like the tortoise in the classic Aesop fable: slow and steady wins the race.
“This feels way more like a sport than straight play,” Beasley said. “I feel like the flow that we’ve gotten into it, when I come on stage, in the beginning, it kind of puts me in game mode. So I’m treating it like an athlete, because I know that my posture is going to be totally different from how I carry myself.”
Jokes change from show to show and audiences should be aware that some jokes may not be suitable for younger audiences.
“I think it gets a little harder when you want to plan out comedy with this specific type of comedy,” Beasley said. “It’s so predicated on the audience’s engagement and where you’re at that day. Whereas I feel like if I was doing stand-up comedy, I’m working on my jokes to see if they land with audiences.”
Audience engagement and interaction is essential to moving the plot of Commedia, it is almost like another character in the show. Fox’s character Arlecchino’s scene partner is, for the most part, the audience.
“If they look bored. I’m coming for them,” Fox said. “A lot of (calling on the audience) is just feeling out who’s there, it’s reading the energy of the crowd, and like what I say and what I do. I have way less interaction with the other characters than everybody else in the show. A lot of my scenes, my stage time is with the audience, which has been really cool and sometimes scary.”
Beasley believes that Borba and Associate Artistic Director Stori Ayers should work as casting directors, as they chose not only the perfect roles to assign, but an altogether perfect cast.
“There’s so much freedom in the group and there’s so much generosity,” Beasley said. “That’s really hard to find. I feel like sometimes it’s the job and you get it with professionals, but it’s authentic generosity, not performative. There’s not a lot of performative generosity in this group and I appreciate that.”
Audiences may not know what the plot of the show is, but to an extent, neither do the actors. Hopefully, what they can count on is to laugh.
“I think audiences can expect to have fun,” Beasley said. “I think if they come with the expectation of just having fun and having a sense of ease in themselves and openness, I think that they will have a blast. It will be like it’s a concert, like a weird call back to the audience and conversation and a love letter to Chautauqua in the form of a chuckle. (I hope the audience leaves) knowing that (CTC) gave us an opportunity to laugh when things were really dark.”