Renaissance theater reborn at JDHS

'Embroglio' springs from 16th-century Italian street comedy

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

Paul Marshall, a loose-limbed actor with a resonant voice, has an idea while rehearsing a scene for the upcoming Juneau-Douglas High School production of "Embroglio." How about if he kicks the character Pantalone and falls down himself?

By the time the scene has been played several times, lines have been inserted and removed and the actors have tried different stunts.

"Can I dance?" Marshall, hopping from one foot to the other, arms moving like train signals, often asks directors Roblin Davis and Bethany Bereman.

"If it works, you can dance whenever you want," Davis tells him.

"Why don't we..." could be the motto for rehearsing "Embroglio," an adaptation by Davis and Bereman of the traditional commedia dell'arte plays that began in 16th century Italy.

At times a form of street theater, commedia used masks, improvised and scripted dialogue, stock characters and acrobatics.

Students in Bereman's advanced acting class, who will perform the play Friday and Saturday at the high school auditorium, have been encouraged to improvise.

"Let's do the whole thing without scripts, so you have to make it up as you go," Davis tells actors rehearsing a scene. "But go big and listen to each other."

"All the performances are pretty much going to be different, I expect, because the commedia is mainly improvisation," said Lauren Brooks, a freshman who plays Tartaglia, the lawyer who helps introduce the play.

The actors made papier-mach masks from molds of their own faces, and researched their characters, who are based partly on animals. Tartaglia, a cross between a duck and an owl, will walk duck-footed but move her head sharply, like an owl.

In creating the mask for the character, "you see it come alive. It's like you created it," said freshman Tracie Temanson, who plays a priest. "We got to create this play on our own, so the whole process was a great thing, not just the play."

Students have had to adjust to a street style of performance. The actors will be on stage at the JDHS auditorium, but so will all of the audience. The curtain will be closed and the stage will become the entire theater.

"There's no fourth wall in commedia," Bereman said in an interview, referring to the usual assumption that the front of the stage is really a wall in a closed room.

"Actors usually pretend there's no audience out there. In commedia it's, 'Hey, do you see this, audience?' "

"Remember, we are out here, and we want to see your eyes," Davis tells the performers during a rehearsal.

"There's something magical about when the audience can see the eyes of the performer and the expression of the mask," Davis said in an interview.

Davis, a performer and director of physical theater, has worked with the students throughout the process, partly during a paid two-week residency, but mostly as a volunteer.

He and Bereman teach the actors to respond to each other and report their emotions to the audience with crisp, exaggerated movements of the head, neck and body, and with clear expressions in their eyes and on their faces below the half masks.

When an actor says "oh," the mouth becomes the letter O and the eyes are big.

When a girl drinks a potion, Davis shows her how to register the liquid moving through her whole body, down to her wavering legs and back up to her face.

"I saw it go in your mouth, but I didn't see it go in your body," Bereman tells an actor. "So activate all of that."

In another scene Davis tells Brooks, "You want to think about never just shifting your weight. You want to make definite physical choices. Try a sense of punctuating your movements with stillness."

Traditionally, commedia was performed anywhere, and the sets were what could come off a wagon or someone's back, said set designer and auditorium manager Toby Clark.

But for "Embroglio," he's gone for something a little more elaborate - two houses - so there will be doors and windows for characters to pop out of.

Marshall, a senior who will be in his 10th high school performance, said he hasn't done commedia before.

"It's entirely different from normal theater because physical comedy really takes it over the top," he said. "Because the mask hides the face, you have to see the emotion in all your movement and your voice, as well."

Commedia is an exaggerated world where personalities become personas, which frees something up in the actors and appeals to high school students, Davis said.

In high school, students are afraid to be themselves, especially girls, said Katrina Rice, a senior who plays Smeraldina. "When they put on masks, they can be someone they've never been. It's good for them."

"Embroglio" will be performed 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $7, available from cast members and at Hearthside Books.

The cast includes Doug Honse, Joleen Sanbie, Tessina Davison, Matt Mielke, Katrina Rice, Eric Lund, Paul Marshall, Chelsea Miller, Jess Wakefield, Nicki Love, Zack Gowdy, Greg Gendron, Nikki Clum, Sam Brown, Taimhyr Ensor-Estes, Toby Clark, Lauren Brooks, Chellsy Milton, Tracie Temanson, Rob Quinto, Kendra Barnes and Luke Metcalfe.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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