Mad River Union
BLUE LAKE – A friend said before the play started, “I’m so glad it’s comedy.” I just looked at her.
Ruzzante Comes Home From the War, the new production at Dell’Arte, is true Commedia dell’Arte in that it whipsaws from comedy to tragedy in a moment and then back again. It’s physical comedy with the characters flying across the stage, doing backflips that leave the audience gasping.
And it’s also mental comedy, swerving from the 15th century to Vietnam to the McKinley statue controversy in just one character’s rhyming, hilarious, word-playing speech.
And despite the opening night’s problems with the wildly feedbacking sound system and one character losing his microphone altogether, it works. For the most part.
Ruzzante is an ambitious production with high aims. A great many of the aims are met but some just did not work, not only for this reviewer, but for members of the audience polled after the play.
For instance, the three characters who return home, and that’s Home with a capital letter in their longing and memories, are subject to persistent flashbacks of gunfire, incoming air attack, and explosions. The explosions were deafening and with the above-mentioned sound problems, actually painful, but they were also ambiguous. Could it just be the war starting again or were these really PTSD, audible only to the three? Maybe that was hard to believe because they were so very audible.
Another, deeper aim was the conceit that one of the characters was a ghost that only the other two could see. A quick line early in the play alludes to that, when Pantalona says she can’t see him. But it’s a throwaway. Much later in the play it’s explained but by that time it’s a bit late.
Still, it was a tender and poignant moment when I realized that a character who had been delighting me with clever dialogue and physical antics was, in fact, dead. At least three people I asked about it after the play didn’t get it. In fact, they looked at me as if I were the crazy one.
Can dead be funny? Michael Fields says in his Director’s Note, “Is war funny? No.”
The first section of the play where Capitano, played by James Peck with humor and depth, drills and admonishes three soldiers, Ruzzante, Brighella, and Stupino, is funny. This section is classic Commedia with physical maneuvers that mimic the military in theater and dance. “War is what happens when language fails,” he says.
The very first line of the play follows the musical pre-show, brilliantly. “Has the war gone?” Capitano asks and we all hope with him that it is so. But we know better since we have just sung along with Country Joe and the Fish on “Fixing-to-Die-Rag,” listened to “Waltzing Matilda” with new ears, and wept when we heard those haunting lyrics of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by the genius poet Phil Ochs yet again. These are not new songs and many of the audience had obviously heard them at peace march after peace march, down through the years. Everyone around me knew every word of the Country Joe song and sang it loudly.
The three soldiers are informed that there is a ceasefire and, after some double-dealing by Capitano, are paid a pittance and sent on their way.
It’s when they try to go to Ruzzante’s home that things get difficult. The world has changed, the statue is down, and how can Ruzzante meet his old love under a statue that is no longer there. The metaphor works and provides many opportunities for local humor, something that Dell’Arte productions always incorporate in clever and unexpectedly funny ways.
A trio of sassy laundresses/Columbinas gives the three veterans some new clothes and sets them up for a difficult time. That Lynnie Horrigan’s costumes for the laundresses make them look both fluffy and slutty is just an example of her always excellent work. The veterans are now dressed in traditional Commedia attire and blend in with the rest of the cast, at least visually. They are, however, still having a difficult time adjusting. Brighella’s (Alyssa Hughlett) lament on her efforts to find work is particularly clever. She also has the most amazing assortment of funny and rude names for her fellow vets. Whoever heard anyone called “dork fork” before?
Ruzzante (the always brilliant Pratik Motwani) has a different line in language, tending to run on in rhyming lines of words that make any spoken word barroom poet look lame in comparison. In addition, his physical grasp of the Commedia moves makes it seem as if the original Ruzzante (playwright and actor Angelo Beolco (1502-1542) nicknamed Il Ruzzante) has come to life. Motwani can mime the birth of a child with a few moves of his pelvis and bring back the memory of Motown with his singing and dancing. The man is versatile.
The third veteran Stupino (played by Lucius Robinson) is a taller foil to the other two, sometimes hysterically funny with his desire for a “peaceful place to poop”, sometimes with a dry humor, as when he compares Ruzzante’s love interest, Gnua, to an indigenous rhino. He delivers his lines with words such as “collywobbles” and “Coddiwomple” with style and brash delight.
This brings us to Gnua (Alexandra Blouin). As she did in Ferndale, playing a German stewardess, this actor doesn’t just tear up the stage, she detonates it. Her version of the insipid Lesley Gore song from 1963, “You Don’t Own Me,” is enough to make Lesley come back from the dead and stand up for herself. Blouin belts the lyrics and throws her voluptuous self around the stage until poor Ruzzante is practically in a coma of unrequited love. The Columbinas help her in this scene but really, she doesn’t need them. It’s her stage and no one else’s. Gnua is so adorably selfish that it’s hard to dislike her for the way she treats her former lover.
“You Don’t Own Me” and all the other songs that come from our musical past work much better in this play than the original songs written by members of the cast and the band. It’s not that the new songs aren’t great, they are, but they are a harder sell in this fast-paced production. It may take several hearings to really grok them. Songs that the audience knows resonate and fit in more deeply because the audience has heard them before, many times. “Partisan” by Leonard Cohen is an example. It works perfectly in the script and was sung so well by band member Tim Randles. All of the band members (Marla Joy, Randles, Mike Labolle, and Jeff Kelley) were excellent, as always, adding depth and excitement to the production.
Donald Forrest and Michael Fields bring a true spirit of Commedia to the stage as Pantalone and Granfa. It doesn’t matter a bit that Forrest tells one of the world’s oldest stories in vaudeville; he sells it and the audience loves him. Fields still has his moves and for his brief appearance, owns the stage.
Another friend told me that she goes to the first and last performance of the Dell’Arte big summer play. In the interim, the play has changed and grown. The sound problems of the first performance should be fixed by the time you read this review. Pacing issues may be ironed out as well.
Go and see this production, sing along, but take your sensibilities about war with you and don’t expect it to be all comedy. It won’t be and that’s what is so terrific about Ruzzante. It’s one of the most heartfelt of the Dell’Arte canon.
That means a lot to us. Thank you.