Italian actor, director, and theatre teacher Marco Luly is trying to explain commedia dell’arte, the art form he has worked in since 1980, and The Servant of Two Masters, the play he is directing for Butler Theatre, October 31 through November 4 at the Schrott Center for the Arts.
He says the show, which was written by Carlo Goldoni in 1745 and has been performed steadily in Italy since 1949, is a comedy with some funny and some serious parts. Some parts develop the story, some parts advance the story, and some parts play the lazzi—the jokes, the fun. There’s improvisation, so the actors need to listen to each other. They need to understand how to share the space and pace. To learn action and reaction. To control their body, their body language. To establish contact with other people. To pick up the vibe of the crowd and play with the audience, rather than to the audience.
“Everything can be used,” he says. “Everything. It’s like the pork, where everything gets used. We can title this interview, ‘Commedia dell’arte is like the pork.'”
And so we have.
Luly, who is spending nine weeks at Butler teaching two classes and directing the show, is the 2018 Visiting International Theatre Artist (VITA). Butler Theatre established the program in 2010 to give students the opportunity to learn from a theater professional from another country. Past VITAs have come from Russia, India, England, and elsewhere.
Luly chose to have the students perform The Servant of Two Masters, a classic in commedia dell’arte, a 500-year-old comedy art form that will be instantly recognizable to today’s audiences through its resemblance to Shakespeare’s comedies, silent movies, sketch comedy, and TV sitcoms. Actors wear leather masks that exaggerate facial features and identify them as stock characters. There are mistaken identities, lovers’ triangles, class struggles, and more.
“Commedia dell’arte is at the root of almost every form of comedy that we know today, whether it’s a TV commercial or Saturday Night Live, or Seinfeld and Cheers,” says Diane Timmerman, Chair of Butler Theatre. “All these shows have stock characters, situations, physical comedy that is all derived from comedia. So it’s fun to go to the source and experience what the original comedy was.”
Luly brought with him four masks for the student-actors to portray character types. There’s Brighella, who is a high-status servant like an innkeeper; Arlecchino, a servant character looking for money, power, and position in the world; Il Dottore—the Doctor—who bluffs his way through every situation; and Pantalone, an old merchant who’s often in love with young girls.
The masks, he says, “are the magic of this form of theater. The masks are important for the actors. The mask does not hide. The mask amplifies. The mask is a tool that can help me show the audience my emotions, my sentiments, my lines. And I don’t need to use too many words, too many moves. I can project my emotions just by one movement of my mask.”
Taylor Steigmeyer, a junior Theatre/Psychology double major from South Bend, Indiana, is playing Arlecchino, the servant of two masters—and having a great time squatting and jumping and inhabiting this sprightly, sparkly, physically demanding character.
Arlecchino, she says, is a character with two basic needs. He wants food—he’s always hungry—and affection from Smeraldina, the maid.
“He’s someone who doesn’t care about anyone but himself, so while I have to worry about what the other characters are doing, I’m in my own little world sometimes,” she says. “I wonder when I’m going to get to eat again. I wonder if Smeraldina wants to kiss me too.”
Steigmeyer said working with Luly has been a great experience, one she initially was unsure she was going to be able to fit into her packed schedule. But she found time to take one of Luly’s afternoon classes, and then was cast as the title character.
“I was like, this is going to be such a great experience,” she says. “When and where would I get an experience like this again?”
Rehearsals for The Servant of Two Masters have been running 6:30-9:30 PM five days a week, and Luly says he’s been impressed with the students’ work ethic and the way they’ve come to understand the characters.
As a director, Luly is a taskmaster, but benevolent. During a rehearsal in early October, when an actor missed a line, he told her, “If you don’t speak, she might speak, so you have to speak.” When the cast is trying to grasp the rhythm of a particular scene where everyone has a couple of words, he explained, “This is a staircase – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 – with each line getting progressively louder. He’ll walk over to tilt an actor’s head, correct the emphasis of a particular line, and instruct one of the actors to carry a prop on a different shoulder so the audience can see his face.
“He’s intense, but he’s very definitive,” says Isaiah Moore, a junior Theatre/Psychology double major from Fishers, Indiana, who plays Florindo Aretusi, who is in love with Beatrice Rasponi and has run away from his hometown because he killed a man in a duel and has relocated to Venice. “He knows what he wants. We have to make sure we’re ready to present what he wants.”
To put it another way, they have to deliver the pork.
Marc Allan MFA ’18