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A riotous delight of commedia dell’arte
2005 Newsday Review

by Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Music was an early vocation of Giorgio Strehler, the late founder of Milan’s Piccolo Teatro. Music’s tones and rhythms wove their way through his productions: in the ethereal singsong and weightless bounds of Ariel in Shakespeare’s Tempest; in the rippling, misty imagery that Strehler crafted for Verdi’s sea-drenched Simon Boccanegra; and in every gesture and word of his classic staging of Carlo Goldoni’s Arlecchino, which opened Wednesday at the Lincoln Center Festival.

The unruly sounds of a five-man band launch Arlecchino, whose characters burst into song at every turn. Flatulent horn-honks punctuate the merchant Pantaloon’s pompous blather; the servant Smeraldina denounces masculine perfidy in a pert arietta that might belong to Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte; the lovers Clarice and Silvio warble a gallant duet while dipping and glissading.

More subtle forms of music, too, permeate Arlecchino. A conversation between the wily title character and the stuttering innkeeper Brighella becomes a nonsense symphony, with syllables and gestures ricocheting back and forth according to a crazed logic. Speech becomes song in Smeraldina’s machine-gun cadences and the swooping, grandiose outpourings of Beatrice and Florindo, another pair of lovers. And Arlecchino’s virtuosic series of lazzi (“gags”) involving a soup tureen, wiggly pudding, flying cookware and prodigious bodily contortions traces arcs of comic grace across the stage.

The performance is in Italian—regional forms for the comic characters and literary Italian for the lovers. Still, the actors’ vivid gestural language and Mace Perlman’s superb surtitles ensure that barely a pun is brandished without uproarious laughter.

Ferruccio Soleri, who first played Arlecchino 45 years ago during an earlier New York visit by the Piccolo Teatro, is both hapless and cunning, wistful and ravenous as the servant whose hunger drives him to serve two masters.

In the English-speaking world, the commedia dell’arte traditions on which Goldoni drew are associated solely with slapstick and improvisation. In reality, commedia dell’arte was an elastic phenomenon that accommodated both pratfalls and erudite set pieces, which Goldoni fused with ancient motifs (mistaken identity, young lovers versus doddering elders) and the 18th century’s more sentimental and class-bound concerns.

Strehler’s Arlecchino, which evolved over five decades, exalts theater’s craft and conventions. A gauzy curtain reveals backstage scrambles, and the set consists of a stage within a stage in whose wings a prompter feeds characters their lines while players rehearse and react along with the audience. The fourth wall repeatedly crumbles: Arlecchino chides spectators for their applause, and actors comment on their own performance.

If all this sounds fussy and cerebral, it’s not. Strehler and his troupe crafted a spectacle of wondrous fluency and effervescence, a three-hour show that draws delighted guffaws from children in the audience right up to the end.

Theater, along with music, is the most time-bound form of art, but by some gift of grace this miraculous Arlecchino lives on, eternal and renewed.

ARLECCHINO, SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. By Carlo Goldoni, directed by Giorgio Strehler, restaged by Ferruccio Soleri. Piccolo Teatro di Milano at Lincoln Center. Tickets $60. Through Saturday. Visit www.lincolncenter.org or call 212-721-6500.

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