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Commedia tonight
I Sebastiani keep an art alive
I capitani gemellare,or The Twin Captains
Scenario by Alex Newman, based on a 16th-century text. Directed by Alex Newman. Lighting by James Hunter Heinlen. Musical direction by Molly Overholt. With Cat Crow, Abigail Weiner, Tanina Carrabotta, Aaron Santos, Mike Bergman, Jay Cross, Alex Newman, Carl West, and Mike Yoder. Presented by I Sebastiani at the Boston Center for the Arts through July 26.

Although it’s widely accepted that Shakespeare and MoliŹre were influenced by Italy’s commedia dell’arte, few of us today bear the masked performers in mind while watching the rascally antics of anyone from the Three Stooges to Kramer. But commedia, which flourished during the Italian Renaissance, has had an influence that’s been widespread and resistant to fading. To understand its impact, consider that the term "slapstick" has its origin in a simple prop, a pair of sticks brandished by Arlecchino, the harlequin figure among any commedia troupe’s roster of stock characters.

There have been famous clowns, among them Dario Fo and Jacques LeCoq, who’ve explicitly styled themselves after the 16th-century performers who toured through Italy, France, and Spain performing chiefly improvisational comedies based on skeletal outlines. But for a live and more literal introduction to the jubilant method that informs players from Groucho Marx to Jim Carrey, there’s the troupe I Sebastiani and their rollicking I capitani gemellare, or The Twin Captains. I Sebastiani dub themselves "the greatest commedia dell’arte troupe in the entire world," if only because when the actors introduce themselves with such hyperbolic fanfare, it sets the tone for cartoon exaggeration. A commedia-preservation society, I Sebastiani are dedicated to re-creating performances as originally presented, from the zany plots of the scenarios to the traditional costumes (including what one smitten character dreamily refers to as a "snappy doublet") to the harmonic interludes to the general tumble-in-the-rough clowning spirit.

Given the minimal set and physical confines of the BCA’s Leland Center, the current production does a good job of rendering the style’s sumptuousness. The intimate quarters may be the polar opposite of the sprawling town squares where commedia troupes set up stages, but it works to The Twin Captains’ advantage, creating an informality that allows the actors to gauge and respond to audience reaction. And audible reaction is encouraged at the outset. After all, commedia shows were largely driven by spectators’ responses. The only problem here is that the troubadours who provide the musical intermezzos are planted in the seats, providing a laugh track.

Some actors are masked in the roles of commedia’s time-honored stock characters, each of whom represents a burlesqued version of a personality type. Among these are the swashbuckling but bogus hero, the swooning damsel in emotional distress, the striking ladykiller who is far heartier in body than in mind, the miserly elder, and a mini-brigade of roguish servants and lecherous fools.

The scenario of Captains revolves around Isabella (Cat Crow), who’s trying to keep her composure despite a heaving chest and flushed face. Having been jilted six years earlier, when her betrothed, the snarling scoundrel Captain Spavento, skipped town to find his more civil twin (both Alex Newman), she’s been hanging on, hot and bothered and on the brink of madness because of "enforced chastity of extreme magnitude and duration." Meanwhile, her mischievous maid, animated with raw bawdiness by Abigail Weiner, schemes to match her mistress with an accidental Don Juan (Aaron Santos), much to the chagrin of Isabella’s scholarly father, whom Jay Cross comically portrays as a pedant spewing erudite yet empty discourses. When both twins reappear in town, mix-ups inevitably shake down. (See Twelfth Night for details.)

I Sebastiani perform commedia scenarios exclusively, so like the original practitioners, the troupe’s members are sufficiently well versed in their stock characters to indulge in spontaneous gags and embellishments. I attended two performances to see how much is improvised; the approach is similar to the way jazz musicians riff on a standard they play night after night.

Among the several aspects of their mission, I Sebastiani aim "to entertain audiences without reminding them of more modern times." In this they fail, for the show serves as a fine reminder of who modern comics owe their dues to.

Issue Date: July 25 - 31, 2003
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