By DannyLee Hodnett
What do Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplain have in common?
Well, they are funny! Funny as they are, however, there is little originality to their performances. Theater history teaches us that the funny walks, confused identities, character types and broad physical and facial antics which make up the bulk of the great American comics’ routines are inspired by commedia dell’arte, a comic form which has been with us since the fall of Constantinople.
Ancient as it is, commedia is still alive and well today. As the great American comics demonstrate, commedia is endlessly malleable and, therefore, endlessly relevant. To create their shows, American comics applied commedia techniques to modern situations. In 1974, the Dell’Arte school was founded in Blue Lake, Calif.
This past February, Sheridan College theater students saw a professional commedia show produced by alumni of Dell’Arte.
Our students were in awe of the performance which blended ancient comedy techniques with modern humanistic realities.
The result was a wonderful production which made us laugh while simultaneously making the audience more sensitive to the modern human condition.
The students’ reactions to this show were so enthusiastic that the Sheridan College Theater Department and Sheridan Civic Theatre Guild decided to make commedia dell’arte the focus of this summer’s co-produced New Play Development Workshop.
Last summer, the NPDW worked with an Emmy award winner, a rock star, a professional recording artist and two Broadway actors to develop and produce “Helldrivers of Daytona: The New Speedway Musical.”
This year, the NPDW has secured Gerry Hansen, a top commedia talent. From June 16- 30, Hansen will be in town working with college students and community thespians in the creation and production of a commedia piece that will be presented to the public free of charge on June 28 and 29 at the Carriage House Theatre.
Hansen is currently the artistic director of Shakespeare in the Park in Santa Barbara, Calif. While she does produce straight Shakespeare and straight commedia, she often combines the two, turning the Bard’s tragedies into gut-busting hilarity. When I first heard of Hansen’s Shakespeare/commedia combos, I was taken aback.
The idea that the deeply human experiences portrayed in Shakespeare’s tragedies were being bastardized into comedy went against several centuries of tradition and seemed disrespectful. However, during Hansen’s commedia production of MacBeth in 2009, I became converted. The juxtaposition of the tragic Scottish king with the irreverent fun of commedia delighted the audience, whose enthusiasm was contagious. I laughed so hard my abs hurt for hours afterwards. I had joined the host of Hansen fans.
Besides her production duties at Shakespeare in the Park, Hansen teaches Shakespeare and commedia dell’arte at the University of California-Santa Barbara. I cannot wait to see what Hansen and Sheridanites come up with in June!