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Commedia Smacks

Transient Theatre

Graduate school does funny things to people’s minds. To celebrate my 23rd birthday my friend Stuart and I–both graduate students at the time–spent an evening making stupid faces in the mirror. Gradually we added dopey voices, costume pieces, dramatic lighting, and even background music, improvising elaborate melodramatic scenes for hours.

Perhaps devotion to improvisational theater produces similar perturbations. Strapheads is an hour-long unintended plagiarism of my 23rd birthday party, with papier-mache masks thrown in for good measure. Director Charna Halpern has assembled a cast of eight, each of whom is assigned a mask by an audience member as the show begins. Once the masks are on, the actors begin to invent voices and postures, rooting through racks of clothing stage right to assemble appropriate costumes, slowly settling into characters; Joe Nicita provides spare guitar riffs as accompaniment. Halpern has even hung a row of mirrors above the audience and facing the performers so they can delight in their own transformations.

Strapheads isn’t about much except the characters themselves. On the night I attended, those characters were without exception intriguing, nuanced and deeply human. A fleshy middle-aged woman with a gargantuan rear end and a perpetual expression of concern longs for the days when she won awards for her “jazz-slash-tap” routines. A nervous, fidgety high roller wannabe with a puffy green face runs around announcing, “I can make or break you.” An elderly man with a spine as scrunched up as his face has spent the last 15 years living in New Mexico trying to escape society, only to be followed by colorful brochures for mail-order record clubs everywhere he goes. The ads are so seductive, in fact, that now he spends most of his time trying to figure out who Toni Braxton and TLC are.

Expertly mining the rich inner lives of their creations, the actors come up with some truly poignant monologues. The high roller wannabe eloquently describes watching his girlfriend leave a party on the arm of another man, a scene he witnessed through an aquarium. The fleshy ex-dancer remembers, “My dance teacher took me aside and said, ‘You’re better than you think you are.’ And I thought to myself, ‘No, I’m not.'”

But when the performers try to interact and improvise scenes, they repeatedly come up short. Like so many improvisers, the cast focus on describing their mental states to one another, announcing their particular neuroses rather than working through those neuroses to find a dramatic impulse. The actors know who their characters are, but they don’t seem to know what those characters do. As a result, they spend much of their time waiting for something to happen, rarely responding to one another in ways that might give the scene some trajectory.

Paradoxically, the cast seem unconcerned with the conventions of plot, even though they’ve chosen to attempt scene work. It’s a curious oversight, especially considering the show’s clear indebtedness to commedia dell’arte, the plot-driven improvisational mask theater originating in Renaissance Italy (the press release’s assertion that Strapheads is “unlike anything ever staged” ignores several centuries of theater history). While Halpern is clearly not interested in commedia dell’arte’s highly exaggerated style, her company could learn from the form’s stock plot devices: mistaken identities, subterfuge, disguise, strangers revealed as long-lost siblings–the very devices Shakespeare borrowed in his comedies. Without some attention to plot, it’s nearly impossible for an improvised evening to go anywhere.

The general tentativeness of the evening is exacerbated by the quasi-ritualistic air. Before receiving their masks at the beginning of the show, the actors stand in a row with their eyes closed and their hands extended as though in prayer. Once the masks are put in their hands, they somberly place them over their faces in unison, to the sound of Nicita’s haunting guitar. Such ceremonial gravity leads to a lot of pretentious slow-motion entrances and exits, as though the actors were trapped in a Rogers and Hammerstein dream ballet sequence for much of the hour.

Such caution keeps the cast from taking real risks, and Strapheads meanders when it should surge forward boldly. With some sort of plot driving the strong cast, they could create remarkable theater. Instead, it seemed as if they were performing for the mirrors above the audience’s heads. Like my friend Stuart and me, they were all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The folks at Transient Theatre may think they’re performing commedia dell’arte in their original circuslike escapade, Commedia Smacks, but in reality this is an hour and a half of amateurish, watered-down Three Stooges routines. While Transient does use commedia’s characteristic half-masks and many of its stock characters–the ingenue, the romantic hero, the domineering father, the swaggering coward–it entirely omits the mix of flamboyance and precision that turns commedia from slapstick farce into a vaguely terrifying lunacy.

Commedia Smacks, which is not so much improvised as ad-libbed around a set story, concerns forlorn lovers separated by an inflexible father and a hapless servant transformed into a monster by a mad doctor. The story might have worked well as a 20-minute sketch, but here it lumbers along through 90 shrill minutes of fidgeting. The abundant physical comedy, reminiscent of old Warner Brothers cartoons, is not only sloppy and ill conceived but telegraphed miles in advance. Chicago’s New Criminals used to chew commedia up and spit it out with mesmerizing results. Transient just gums commedia around the edges.