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When Italian playwright Carlos Gozzi finished writing the "The King Stag" sometime in the 1760s, he purposely left the script bare and open-ended - allowing his cast of great "commedia dell'arte" actors to improvise the dialogue and action.
Almost 250 years later, New York writer/actor/director/filmmaker/teacher Richard Toth has completed his own adaptation for an ensemble cast of 14 at Perseverance Theatre.
At two hours, 15 minutes, it may be one of the longest versions written in the last two centuries, but it follows Gozzi's path: a combination of slapstick merriment, blank verse, puppetry, high drama, improvisation, fairy tale, magic and romance.
"The King Stag" opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, and closes Nov. 30.
"The play has a lot of the elements that drew me to the theater in the first place - this magic and this wonderfully strange world and these big, broad characters that are part of a really different world than ours," Toth said.
"By the nature of the way Gozzi wrote and what he was coming from, I don't think he expected his actors to stick to the dialogue 100 percent," he said. "I felt like it was almost inevitable for us to come up with our own."
The cast acts as a troupe of traveling players who have come to Perseverance to set up shop. They're both part of the action and part of the audience. The play begins with a bantering 10-minute pre-show.
The story is set in a small kingdom in the fairy-tale world of Serendip. Deramo (Jake Waid), the king, has interviewed 2,748 women to be his queen. He's rejected them all and no one knows why. The answer is a bust, given to him by a magician, that rests in his chambers. The statue smiles when the women lie, and so far, each candidate has been dishonest.
The town grows restless without a queen, and Deramo begins interviewing local candidates. He settles on Angela, a poor but simple girl who truly loves him. In the process, he passes over Smeraldina, the town whore, and Clarissa, daughter of Tartaglia, his evil prime minister. Tartaglia is in love with Angela.
For the bachelor party, they embark on a hunt. Deramo reveals another magic secret to Tartaglia - the power to transfer your soul into the dead body of an animal or human. Bent on revenge, Tartaglia tricks Deramo to inhabit a stag, then steal's the king's body. Tartaglia returns to court, and Angela, as a now-evil king. Deramo takes the body of an old wretch and tries to tell the court of the mixup.
"You really don't know what's going to happen until you get in the room," said Jake Waid, who plays Deramo the king, and Deramo as inhabited by Tartaglia. (Waid and Bruce Rogers, the actor who plays Tartaglia, are close friends and Perseverance veterans.)
"It's a room full of very talented people, and everyone's comedic talent is being used and stretched to the limit," Waid said. "And so it's a good family show. It's good to be in a show where you hear big belly laughs from the kids."
The story includes magic transformations, several madcap chases and a invisible narrator parrot. The scene changes and special effects are done with several rows of curtains, strung up on ropes and rotated by the actors.
"It's wonderfully theatrical and that's what I like about it the most," Toth said. "As a director I'm drawn to a play that only works in the theater. If you made it into a movie, it wouldn't seem right. You'd get computer graphics or something, and it would be really easy, but I think it would lose a lot of its charm."
Toth first directed the show in 1995 while living in Prague. He had an American-speaking cast with Czech narrators. Perseverance Artistic Director Peter DuBois saw that version and has been trying to bring Toth to town since moving to Juneau.
Toth began working on his own adaptation in July and finished the script about four weeks ago.
"My tradition has been clowning and vaudeville-type stuff, performance and theater," Toth said. "But what holds the piece together is not just the series of comic bits, but the idea of love between two people and how that can conquer anything."
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Adapted and directed by: Richard Toth; Cigolotti: Beth Weigel; Clarissa: Christy Burgess; Tartaglia: Bruce Rogers; Smeraldina: John Leo; Brighella: Roblin Gray Davis; Truffaldino: Derrek Young; Pantalone: Ibn R. Bailey; Leander: Seneca Harper; Angela: Emily Windover; Deramo: Jake Waid; The Cripple: Ryan Conarro; Durandarte: Dan Reaume; Puppeteer/Ensemble: Chelsea Rohweder; Guitarist/Ensemble: Rick Bellagh.