Commedia King John
Created by Chicago dell’Arte
Who knew the Magna Carta could be so funny?
|Chicago dell’Arte presents|
|Commedia King John|
Review by Joy Campbell
In Commedia King John, Chicago dell’Arte gives us a theater mash-up: a natural marriage of heavily dramatic Shakespeare to the broad comic style of Commedia dell’Arte. The result is a hilarious consummation devoutly to be wished
In reality the show is somewhat light on the Shakespeare, using it mainly as a loose premise for plot development, but this is in no way a problem. The story: a young woman asks her uncle to explain the Magna Carta (of course), and he decides to do this by –- what else? –- directing a production of Shakespeare’s King John, enlisting various characters that waste no time bringing their petty rivalries to bear in their quests to play the plum roles. This plot line established, we move on to the meat of the show: scene after scene of riotous interplay and melodrama that is nothing short of delightful.
In keeping with the commedia style, the approach used to develop the show is to write a basic script using character “types,” then employ improvisation to flesh it out. While not an unfamiliar concept (witness Second City, etc.), the result in Commedia King John is a brilliantly original production whose biting intelligence, vigorous pace, and expert delivery make for relentlessly engaging theater.
The collaborative approach employed by this ensemble in developing the work is reflected in the tight interplay among the actors and the obvious fun they have performing together. This is 90 minutes of high physicality and nonstop verbal banter (“your eyebrows are as bushy as the upper lip of a blind Belgian nun”) done to perfection.
The stage is a bare space across which two rows of chairs face each other. When not in character, the actors sit onstage, masks removed, observing the action. All but one performer use the exaggerated commedia masks, which not only amplify the colorful characters, they allow a woman to play a man, a young man to play an old one, and beautiful women to play somewhat grotesque and dullard servants. Also, having the actors onstage at all times allows the audience to appreciate their transformation.
And do they ever transform. As the ditzy Miabella, Brittany Bookbinder is the only unmasked cast member, and her expressions and comic timing establish high expectations from the outset. Jared Lore, as her pompous uncle, Pantalone, commands our attention with his booming voice while making assertions whose hilarious inaccuracy is matched only by his own unflappable certitude. Erin Leigh Crites plays Capitano John, the fatuous, insecure King of England whose strongest desire is to win the adoration of his people. With mask on and fantastic physicality, she convinces us that we are watching a man in this role; she owns it, and plays it to the hilt. As Zanni D and Zanni P, Julia Stemper and Amy Dellagiarino are the quintessential slapstick servants who can’t get out of their own way. Stemper does an excellent job delivering the majority of the few lines of actual Shakespeare in the play — that is, when she is not serving as someone’s beast of burden; Dellagiarino’s Zanni P is obsessed with both food and proving that she is not, in fact, an ape – a running joke that just gets funnier through her increasing exasperation and muttered throwaway lines, which inject her scenes with a wacky richness.
While it isn’t possible to have true standouts in a cast this uniformly talented, a nod must be given to Omar Abbas Salem as Capitano France, and Mark Soloff as Dottore. Salem’s Capitano France is a fabulous, preening French king complete with outrageous accent, flamboyant gestures, and a passionate love for… himself. His portrayal of the inhabitants of the entire country of France (all twelve of them) is a masterpiece. As Dottore, Mark Soloff steals his scenes with his portrayal of the bawdy old man unhappy (at least at first) to be cast as a woman in the production. His transformation, vocally and physically, from handsome young actor to creaky old letch, is astonishing.
The only (very minor) flaw in the show is the ending, which is too tentative; a show this packed with broad characters and high energy deserves a big, definitive finish. Its detraction from the show is small, however. In fact, the only real flaw in this show is that it ends.
Commedia King John continues through September 29th at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students/industry/seniors), and are available by phone (312-834-4232) or online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at ChicagoDellArte.com. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Brittany Bookbinder (Miabella); Erin Leigh Crites (Capitano John); Amy Dellagiarino (Zanni P); Jared Latore (Pantalone); Omer Abbas Salem (Capitano France); Mark Soloff (Dottore); Julia Stemper (Zanni D)
behind the scenes