Slapstick and drama

Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2003

In the winter of 1995, director Richard Toth was a playwright and actor, living in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and directing at a small repertory theater in the center of the city.

He returned to his home in the Bronx for Christmas and decided to visit a bookstore one day. He browsed through the international play section with the vague idea of finding an adaptation to take back to his company in Prague. It was there that he came across "King Stag" and the work of Italian dramatist and satirist Carlo Gozzi.

"I loved his style," said Toth, who lives in New York and has been in Juneau for about two months to direct Perseverance Theatre's production of his adaptation of "King Stag."

Toth's version is modernized, with references to science, atoms and even Douglas. But it's true to the original - fantastic, ridiculous, larger-than-life and heroic.

"I like to go to fairy tales for inspiration and to try to find the raw feeling that we had as kids of understanding the old and trying to find our place in it," Toth said. "When people walk out of this, I hope they can see things a little differently and use their imagination to help them get through whatever they do in their lives."

Gozzi (1720-1806) was one of the late followers of the Italian commedia dell'arte ("Comedy of Art") movement. The genre lasted almost 400 years, from the 14th to the 18th century, according to theatrehistory.com, but it was at its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Commedia dell'arte emphasized physical performance and improvisation. The scenes and the situations in the plays were written out, but the rest of the script often was left bare for the actors to fill in and embellish. Success was dependent on the actors' skill. Commedia is one of the most influential movements in modern comedy, its roots can be seen in vaudeville, silent film, and troupe shows such as "Saturday Night Live."

Commedia also was known for its traditions. Most plays were based around romantic entanglements and cons. A big part of every show was the "lazzi."

Lazzi "often had nothing to do with the play itself," wrote Martha Fletcher Bellinger in "A Short History of the Drama." "It might be clever pantomimic acting, acrobatic feats, juggling, or wrestling. For example, three characters meet at a cook shop, where they hear of an accident which has befallen the wife of one of them. While they express their dismay at the affliction, they fall to eating greedily from a huge dish of macaroni; and as they eat, tears stream down their faces."

The movement also had stock characters, such as a servant, a maid, an old man, a cook, a jester and a hunchback. Many of these characters would wear masks or fake noses to accentuate their features.

"In the course of time there crystallized about each mask an entire code or repertory of phrases, exclamations, curses, exits, epigrammatic sayings and soliloquies appropriate to the role, which could be memorized and made to fill in the blank when the actor's wit could find nothing better," Bellinger wrote.

By the time Gozzi came along, commedia was declining. New writers, such as Carlos Galdoni, were trying to write plays based on real life or "actual situations." Gozzi was a believer in commedia's larger-than-life style. He was so in love with the fantastic that he began to write "fiabe" - plays built around commedia but pushing the tradition further into the preposterous.

"King Stag" is known as one of the great traditional commedia dell'arte plays, though to be fair, many of the plays weren't recorded. Gozzi's script uses the names of some of the traditional stock characters, but it doesn't hold closely to the stock rules.

Pantalone is the name of a traditional dell'arte stock character - often a lecherous shopkeeper. But the Pantalone in "King Stag," as played by Ibn R. Bailey, is a doting father.

"As far as what (Gozzi) was writing about, I think he was trying to get away from (stock)," said Bruce Rogers, who plays Tartaglia. "It had become a little too predictable. There were a couple schools that were trying to break out of it."

Though loose with the traditional rules, Gozzi's "King Stag" is still rich with the improvised physicality that the movement was known for. Toth's version is no different.

"In the original Italian, Gozzi writes scenes like, 'These two characters meet and they have a fight about their girlfriends,' and that's all," Toth said. "In the commedia tradition, these great comic actors would come out in any kind of story and just do their bits. That encouraged me to let the actors come up with some things."

That process started this fall. Toth and his wife, Victoria, had a baby in August, so he didn't arrive in Juneau until September. Perseverance Artistic Director Peter DuBois built the ensemble of 14 actors, not according to role but according to general instructions Toth gave over the telephone.

"Peter knew the style of theater that I was interested in," Toth said. "I wanted people who had some clowning background or a physical background, and some people who could create all these sounds. And if anyone had an interest in puppetry or maskwork, that was a plus, too."

When Toth arrived in town, the actors in the ensemble had no idea which roles - or which sex - they would end up playing.

"Richard said he definitely wanted to have some cross-casting, even though there were only a few (four) women," said Emily Windover, who plays Angela.

The actors spent the first two weeks of rehearsals in small groups, engaged in physical exercises, short improvisational skits and clown bits. They explored movement and tempo.

At one point, they acted out "confusion embodied." Those first weeks were a chance for Toth to get know the actors, and a chance for the actors to learn the style of the play.

"I wish every play would begin that way," Windover said. "It was a chance for all of us to get to know each other and just work really physically and get to a point where we were comfortable with each other. It was nice to have those two weeks. There wasn't that pressure of working on the scene."

As the exercises continued during the nights, Toth finished the script during the day. He handed the cast the script about four weeks before dress rehearsal.

"Richard took us through a series of thinking about what our character is and what we do in the show," said Roblin Gray Davis, who plays Brighella, the cook. "We came up with certain gestures that we felt expressed the idea of the show. Out of that, I developed a certain kind of stance. And that helped me reside and inhabit the character of Brighella."

John Leo plays the irreverent, conniving and whorish Smeraldina - a character who stops at nothing to get what she wants.

"It took awhile to really arrive at Smeraldina," Leo said. "For a long time, I was much more breathy and girly, and that wasn't really working. It was a long path to this bawdy masculinity. A big inspiration was Eartha Kitt - sort of upfront, low-brow, low-class. Also (Richard) being from the Bronx, he has this accent that helped."

Windover plays Angela - the working class daughter who wins the king's heart.

"The thing about Angela is that she's simple," Windover said. "With a lot of the characters, Richard was giving them notes to go bigger and zanier. Angela and the king are more simple, and they stand out because of that."

Toth's adaptation of "King Stag" runs through Nov. 30 at Perseverance.

"I'm happy with the way this turned out," he said. "I think we got 14 great people."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@ juneauempire.com.



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