writers on dancing


Street Theater

Piccolo Teatro di Milano
Lincoln Center Festival
Alice Tully Hall
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
July 20-23, 2005

by David Vaughan
copyright ©2005 by David Vaughan

“Arlecchino, Servitore di due Padrone,” to give its full title, is a signature piece of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano. It was first performed in the company’s inaugural season in 1947 (two hundred years after Carlo Goldoni’s play was first produced) and since that time has gone through ten or eleven versions. Giorgio Strehler (1921-1997), the company’s founder, was one of the 20th century’s greatest directors, and it is New York’s shame that so few of his productions have been seen here. “Arlecchino” played at the City Center in 1960; the Paris Opéra brought his magical “Marriage of Figaro” to the Metropolitan some time in the mid seventies; “La Tempesta” (Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) came to the Summerfare festival at Purchase in 1984 (but not “Arlecchino,” which was seen in the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles that year); Pirandello’s “Mountain Giants” came to BAM in 1995. Now at last “Arlecchino” has returned, in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival.

I count myself lucky to have seen all these, and also two other versions of “Arlecchino” in Paris, in 1983 and 1998, and in 1979 Goldoni’s Chekhovian “Trilogie de la Villegiature,” in the production Strehler did for actors of the Comédie Française (having done two earlier versions for his own company), one of the greatest things I ever saw in the theater. “La Tempesta,” too, was revelatory: in a masterstroke, the comic characters were played in commedia dell’arte style, though I was less convinced by Ariel as Tinkerbell. But I’ll never forget the moment when Prospero broke his staff in two and the whole set collapsed in one count—then in the curtain call he clapped his hands and it reassembled itself again.

No doubt many of the elements of “Arlecchino” have remained the same in the many different versions—including several of the actors. The original Brighella, Gianfranco Mauri, continued to play the role at least through 1998; it is now taken by Enrico Bonavera, who reproduces his predecessor’s chicken-like walk. (Carrying on the tradition, he plays Arlecchino at some performances.) Alighiero Scala has played the prompter certainly since 1983 (there is a wonderful moment when he falls asleep and has to find his place in the script when an actor needs a prompt). Above all, of course, the title role is played as it has been ever since he went on once for its originator, Marcello Moretti, at the City Center, by Ferruccio Soleri. The audience is still astonished when he removes his mask and cap at the curtain call and reveals himself to be a man in his seventies. Equally surprising is to see that the Panalone is in fact quite a young man.

The current production, supervised by Soleri, goes back to one of the earlier versions. The last one I saw, called the “Farewell” edition, in which the scenery and most of the costumes were white, struck me as a little precious. I prefer this one, with its stage within a stage, and the wing space visible on either side, where the actors rest or sometimes comment on what their colleagues are doing on stage. You could say that this creates a kind of Brechtian “alienation effect” in the sense that there is a certain detachment from the action, except that there is something ineffably poignant in the fact that one is seeing the “real” life of the actors in the play. The actors in the Piccolo cast are playing their roles, and also the actors playing those roles, so that the performance exists on several different levels.

This is not to say that one does not also, on one level, believe the people in the play itself, even if they step out of character sometimes to address the audience, and even though there is an extreme stylization in much of the playing, especially in terms of movement. Arlecchino himself is constantly in motion, doing what one might in balletic terms define as tendu, coupé tendu; approaching his beloved, Smeraldina, the maid, they both perform a series of assemblés en avant. (The movements are not as formalized as this suggests, I am just trying to describe them some way. Goldoni’s plays have in fact been used as scenarios for actual ballets, Massine’s “Good-Humored Ladies” and “Scuola di Ballo.”)

Perhaps Soleri does not perform as many somersaults as he did in earlier days, but his acrobatics in the climactic scene where he has to serve dinner to both his masters are astonishing, particularly when he comes in carrying a tureen of soup and manages to keep it upright while rolling over. The business with a shaking jelly is worthy of Chaplin--and indeed throughout the play one sees things which remind one of traditional bits of business one has seen in silent film comedies, music hall, and the “new vaudeville” of players like Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Thus Soleri’s pursuit of an imaginary fly (which, in a gross-out moment, he eats after pulling off its wings), a sequence originally invented by Moretti, turned out, one reads, to have been something a real commedia actor had done ages before. This is true street theater, theater for the people, and for the connoisseur as well.

Photos, all by Stephanie Berger:

Volume 3, No. 30
August 1, 2005

copyright ©2005 David Vaughan



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last updated on August 1, 2005