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Subversive laughs

Harlequin romance: Theater in Ann Arbor.
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Published 11/2/2005

If going to see a 258-year-old Italian comedy sounds boring, you haven’t seen commedia dell’arte. This robust physical comedy, considered the mother of modern slapstick, has more in common with Abbot & Costello than The Two Gentlemen from Verona. In it, masked actors must express their emotions through body language, mustering the madcap performances that the form is known for.

Each summer in Ann Arbor, there are at least a few outdoor performances by area actors. But this year, the University Musical Society offers a chance to see the keepers of the flame, the veterans of the original Italian public theater, Piccolo Teatro di Milano. The show, which is performed as directed by the late Italian stage giant Giorgio Strehler, comes this week to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

The Piccolo Teatro performs Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters, a play from the prolific 18th-century playwright Carlo Goldoni. Goldoni drew on the rich history of commedia dell’arte, which was more than a century old even then. Arlecchino is a stock character in commedia, a servant who’s preoccupied with putting food in his stomach. Sly but dim, lazy but full of twitchy energy, he represents the common man, warts and all. His misadventures pit him against his masters, yet his hunger for food forces him to do their bidding. This play in particular has a confused Arlecchino making a muck of moonlighting, with big laughs for the audience.

A classic comedy, the storylines in Two Masters involve uniting lovers against the odds — like Romeo and Juliet without the cyanide and hara-kiri. But, as with any story about masters and servants, invariably the radicals get involved. The subversive veins running through commedia have been mined not only by Italian Nobel Prize-winner Dario Fo, a onetime communist whose father fought in the Italian resistance, but here by Strehler, who himself fought in the resistance. The comic tradition of commedia abounds with the injustices and dilemmas of common people, stories that could be used for political purposes. That said, good satire leaves you laughing too hard to notice it, and Two Masters promises plenty of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Another reason to show up is the improbably energetic stage presence of actor Ferruccio Soleri, who, at 75, reportedly gives a nimble performance in the physically demanding title role.


In Italian with English supertitles. Four performances — 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 3 through Saturday, Nov. 5; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 6. Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor. For tickets, call the University Musical Society, 734-764-2538.

Michael Jackman is Metro Times copy editor. Send comments to

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