Purnell hosts The Plague in Venice

Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is a playground of old styles and fresh experiments, and The Plague in Venice was a bit of both. Directed by guest Sasha Iliev, and based on a story by Flaminio Scalia, The Plague in Venice premiered on the Chosky stage this month as a spectacular reimagining of a 400-year-old form of Italian theatre. The Plague in Venice, a comedy about a plague that killed a quarter of Venice’s population in the late 16th century, has everything characteristic of Commedia dell’arte: exaggerated archetypal characters, improvisation, and satire on politics and human nature. But this background information, while useful in retrospect, was hardly necessary for me to enjoy this bizarre but wonderful show.

The set and costume designers behind the scenes deserve the loudest shout-out. Everything in this fictionalized Venice was visually stunning, from dreamy wrought iron bridges over canals, to an enormous, black lace-bordered moon that really did hit my eye like a big pizza pie. Fixed throughout the show with few moving parts, the set was not complicated, but elegant.

The costumes were far more extravagant, often wearing the actors more than vice versa. They perfectly emphasized character types like The Alchemist with his galoshes and large clusters of boils, the greedy Pantalone with his gold-trimmed hammer pants, and The Lover with a tulip-bud skirt reminiscent of a particular part of the female anatomy. The play’s two most threateningly named characters — Plague and Death — got two of the coolest outfits. Plague was queenly in her hot lava-like flowing body suit, while Death (played by Junior Drama Major Clay Singer) was more towering puppet than costume, floating menacingly across the stage and grasping up victims with its skeletal metal hands. Even Plague’s squad of rats were alluring, with fur like gossamer rags and red glowing eyes. I could’ve sat through two hours of The Plague in Venice with my hearing turned off, and the sight of it alone would have conquered my attention.

Admittedly, the play packed more of a visual than a comedic punch. Its crude slapstick and stock cast of over-the-top characters, classic to a style of theatre several centuries old, is not too compatible with your average millennial’s ironic, postmodern brand of humor. The lines that won the most laughs were oddly placed yet refreshing references to the contemporary, such as the song lyrics each character would quote when Death asked for their “last words” — everything from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Highway to Hell.” I was also tickled by the running joke that one of Plague’s rats — Mickey — is a troublemaker with a big mouth and a high-pitched jolly laugh. But even if this comedy didn’t exactly put the audience in hysterics, I often found myself grinning at the sheer absurdity of the spectacle.

The spectacle would not have been nearly as effective without the talents of its cast. Senior Drama Major Caroline Pluta dominated the stage as Plague, whose poise and malicious delight never let the show’s premise — and its title — become lost in the chaos. Franceschina (played by Senior Drama Major Kelsey Tarantino) was an interesting, stereotypically masculine twist on a very trope-y role. Instead of sighing and weeping in the name of love, this Lover weaponizes her own stench and dodges marriage to seek the amorous activity she really wants. The show’s most entertaining character was The Alchemist (played by Senior Drama Major Colin Whitney), perhaps because he strayed most often into contemporary territory, fumbling with “spill-proof” flasks and reading off a laundry list of side-effects for a plague antidote that include erectile hyper-function. As an ensemble, the cast effectively highlighted human silliness in continuing to seek out sex and material wealth even during a time when everyone around you is literally dropping like flies.

It’s impossible to know how much of the show I saw on Friday night was improvised, as one of the tenets of commedia dell’arte is unpredictability. Paired with outstanding — and obviously professional — visual design, the show’s comparatively less polished performances gave off an impression of charm and balance. The Plague in Venice wasn’t intimidating, despite its brilliant artistry, because the performers did not take themselves or the satire too seriously. When the bows came and the cast broke into a final cheerful song, I found myself wishing I knew the words to sing along, so we could better revel in the ridiculousness together.