Slapstick comedy and traveling shows

This time, it’s simple. There are no pretentious titles, no “conceptual” preaching about pseudo-semiotic-Marxism, in-your-face neoclassical theory, or any of that avant-garde gobbledygook. You don’t have to mentally prepare yourself to put on a bland sweater, pick up tickets, and sit in a black-box vortex while listening to “someone” say “something” for three hours. Finally, the School of Drama invites the Pittsburgh community to simply laugh. Fart jokes, sex jokes, good old fistfights, punitive and humiliating stunts with acrobatics, song, and spectacle finally take center stage. And the best part is that the show is brought to you.

This season, Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama has actively engaged itself with the Pittsburgh culture and community in a production called The Commedia Project. After years of producing academically significant pieces, the school has returned to one of the basic premises of theatrical art: entertainment.

Under the direction of Mark Bell, a faculty member at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Carnegie Mellon drama students will perform two Commedia dell’arte (Italian for “play of professional artists”) skits, an improvised performance style. The skits, Servant of Two Masters and Scapino are performed on a traveling cart called the “Pageante Waggon” inspired by historical traveling actor wagons. So far, the Commedia troupe has performed at the CFA lawn, on Midway during Carnival, at Station Square, and in Hartwood Acres Park.

The Commedia Project is a unique revival of traditional Italian farce set in Pittsburgh during the 1920s and ’30s. This theatrical form was incredibly popular in 16th-century Europe. Typical Commedia scenarios are concerned with licentious love intrigues and clever games to get money or outwit a simpleton. There were always the same inamorati, or lovers, the same plotting maids, the same bragging fancy-pants rich men, and the same devious servants. Most everyone in the audience was familiar with the plot and characters, so that physical comedy could be the main focus. While the plots had little variance or conceptual significance, the real art was in the improvisation and “living comedy.”

Carnegie Mellon’s commedia project tried to translate and update this historical art form into a Pittsburgh-specific spectacle. Scapino, originally written by Molière, has been adapted by Bill Irwin; and Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters was adapted by Carnegie Mellon students and faculty Rob Smith (master’s student in drama), James Sandlin (master’s student in drama), Michael Chemers (assistant professor of dramatic literature), Michele DiPietro (associate director of Eberly Center), and junior dramaturgy major Rose Sengenberger. The text was interactively developed with the help of the actors as well.

According to Sengenberger, the director wanted to avoid a “museum piece” that just portrayed Commedia values. “This is the first time the School of Drama has participated in the university-wide celebration of Carnival. Commedia is traditionally a comedy of community, so we tried to cater to our immediate audience,” she said.

For the show, original texts were streamlined with Pittsburgh-specific comedy. Pantaloon, a stock character who was meant to be a rich and dubious scrooge, was transformed into the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The actor, drama senior Ben Goldberg, behaved like a stereotypical Yinzer, including a Terrible Towel.

This aspect of the production walked a thin line between innocent comedy and blatant mockery. Situational comedy is well received when the person delivering a joke can take ownership of the stereotype. For example, the “git ’er done” rednecks are hilarious because we all know they are making fun of themselves. Many of the actors, however, had no personal association with the Yinzers they were attempting to satirize. This raised some tense issues about Carnegie Mellon’s relationship with Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon itself is a transplant in Pittsburgh society. Most of the students are from different states or different countries altogether. On another level, The Commedia Project is an unnatural imposition on Pittsburgh. This show was meant to relate to the community, but a lot of the comedy was derived from stereotypical judgments.

Despite some hefty identity issues, The Commedia Project was so exciting because students were given the opportunity to break of out conventional theater practices. Of course, this isn’t the first time the school had dabbled in separate theatrical mediums: last year’s Orestia was an experimental theater fantasia that challenged students and faculty alike. However, street theater is especially intriguing because it engages performance within everyday life. Students had to make real efforts to communicate with the present audience.

While the slapstick comedy was simple and effective, the design of the show seemed forced and over-produced. The set was a complicated steel contraption with all sorts of bells and whistles. The actors produced the sound effects themselves by using balloons to make farting noises or hitting pieces of metal together to simulate fight scenes. While this seemed resourceful and impromptu, the sounds did not travel into the audience and it was often hard to understand what was happening. The set changes, sound effects, props, and set were overly theatrical and unnatural. It all seemed too intricate for a show that was meant to engage with its changing environment. While most audiences were able to catch on, there was still an awkward hesitation; most people didn’t know if it was okay to laugh, because the whole production seemed too elaborate for such simple comedy.

While the main goal was to get laughs, the production was by no means lacking in substance. An audience member could take the slapstick comedy for face value, or they could engage the action conceptually — either way, there’s a lot of meat to chew on.

Carnegie Mellon’s production of Servant of Two Masters functions on many different levels. On a literal level, Truffaldino (drama senior Dusty Alvarado) is the servant of two masters: Beatrice (drama senior Faith Bryck) and Florindo (drama senior Barrett Davis). However, the title also refers to man’s servitude to his own desires, as Truffaldino seeks to appease his desires for love and food.

This idea of man as a slave to his senses is a running theme in neoclassical thought. Philosophers of the time thought that reason and intellect were devoid of human emotion. The mind and body were viewed as separate entities; a man free of crude and animalistic urges was able to transcend his earthly bounds.

This historical contention between intellect and animalistic indulgence can be found in the practices of Carnegie Mellon itself. The School of Drama has often thought itself above and beyond simple comedy, and they certainly addressed a dichotomy between high and low art. Most of the school’s repertoire fails to engage the community because it’s just too heady or obscure. Commedia is a very self-conscious attempt to reconnect with Pittsburgh and the people who make theater possible.

As Truffaldino said during the performance, “It’s been one hell of a ride, and I’m glad you came along. We laughed, we cried, we had a snack! You know what my favorite part was... you!” With these concluding lines, the School of Drama finally recognized that theater is first and foremost about making people happy.