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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Arlecchino: servant of two masters & The God of Hell


Guthrie presents Arlecchino, a remarkable slice of theater history

Going to see Teatro di Milano's touring commedia dell'arte, Arlecchino: servant of two masters by Carlo Goldoni, is like going to a Christie's sale and seeing an object d'art that you admire but have no desire to bid upon. It's a fascinating lesson in theater history and a must-see for theater aficionados. Less compelled audiences might find its jolly romp and predictable pratfalls, not to mention its almost three-hour length, somewhat tiresome.

Commedia dell'arte (literally, comedy of the profession) evolved from touring players in the 16th and 17th centuries. Troupes erected simple sets in piazzas and courtly halls to entertain peasants and princes. Players in traditional leather half-masks improvised around stock characters ensnared in stock predicaments that involve avarice, sex and class.

The form influenced theater from Shakespeare to Charlie Chaplin, from opera to pantomime. In 1745, Goldoni adapted the conventions of commedia and developed the character of the wily and ever-famished servant Arlecchino (in English, harlequin). He rounded the other characters to make them more human, and renewed the form's popularity. By the 1900s, commedia was in decline, but renowned director, the late Georgio Strehler, restaged Arlecchino in 1947 to acclaim, and it continues as his signature work.

An atmosphere of spontaneity and nonsense infuses the play. It opens with the players shoving and instructing each other like amateurs in a dress rehearsal. Of course, it all comes together with adroit timing and expert physical humor, but it retains a pleasingly hammered-together feel in a plot that involves deception, three weddings, mistaken identities, duels and dinner.

On Ezio Frigerio's simple platform set, with three painted curtain backdrops that get pulled back and forth along a wire, the play is an ensemble work, with 25 skilled players and musicians. At 75, Ferrucio Soleri embodies the scheming servant Arlecchino and is the glue at the center of various plotlines. Soleri is limber and agile and, even after 45 years in the role, his performance feels as crisp as a just-picked apple.

Soleri is at his finest when he mimes, as he does when he admits to Smeraldina (sweet-voiced Alessandra Gigli,) that he loves her: he opens up his heart and shows it fluttering. In a site gag, or lazzo, he follows and swats at an erratic fly. Once he nabs and de-wings it, I'll let you guess what the starving servant does with it. On press night the audience was restrained and when Arlecchino desperately searches for a letter that's stuck to his rear end, no one called out to help him find it, which might have added to the fun.

Giorgio Bongiovanni's Pantelone, the greedy father of a marriageable daughter, is as self-serving as he ought to be, and Paolo Calabresi as Doctor Lombardi, the would-be bridegroom's father, is a monument of overbearing pomposity. Georgia Senesi gives a strong gender-switching performance as Beatrice in disguise as her brother, and Enrico Bonavera's Brighella, the innkeeper-cum cook, blows whichever way advantage dictates.

Surtitles translate the rapid-fire Italian, but beware; they are set way too high, and by following them, I missed too much of the action. So, absorb the gist of the plot from the playbill and translate the universal physicality on stage for yourself.

The players all seem to have an infectiously jolly time, yet Arlecchino trails unmistakable whiffs of the museum in its pantaloons.

Arlecchino November 9 - 20, 2005. Wednesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Closing Sunday 20, 1:00 p.m. Pantages Theatre, 710, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. $20 - $45.00. Call 612-377-2224. Toll Free (612) 44-STAGE or, www.guthrietheater.org.


Intense The God of Hell gets an intense playing at Frank Theatre

The God of Hell is not Sam Shepard's finest hour as a playwright; rather it's an impassioned wake-up call to a sleeping nation that is allowing an ideologically driven government to snoop into common lives and set in place invasive controls in the name of national security. Frank Theatre artistic director Wendy Knox layers the four-person political drama with racial undercurrents in an intense playing that had me cringing in my seat.

Set in dairyland Wisconsin, on Steve Rohde's detailed set, Emma (Virginia Burke) and Frank (Gary Keast) are contented young farmers. Pleasant but frightened Haynes (Ansa Akyea,) Frank's old friend, is visiting and is a man who hides unspeakable secrets. Paranoia blows in like winter with Welch (Grant Richey), a government man. He knows all about the farm, Emma and Frank, and their visitor. He accuses Emma of being unpatriotic because there is no Stars and Stripes on their flag pole, and he implies an intention to take over the farm.

The uniformly strong cast plays to the intensity of Shepherd's over-stated script in a play that begins in mystery but darkens into brainwashing and Abu Ghraib-style torture, with an electric-shock lead clipped to Haynes' penis.

I was emotionally battered by play's end, but The God of Hell feels necessary and urgent as Congress begins to debate renewal of the Patriot Act and President Bush reassures the nation that America does not torture alleged terrorist prisoners in its alleged secret off-shore prisons.

The God of Hell ends November 20, 2005. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Closing Sunday 20, 2:00 p.m., with a post-play discussion. Loring Playhouse, 1633, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. $18 - $20.00. Call 612-724-3760, or, www.franktheatre.org.


- Elizabeth Weir



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