At the start of a canned lecture on the history of commedia dell'arte, two stuffy academics raise the alarm against any deviation from their dry slideshow: "If you are going to use actors, it surely will descend into anarchy!"
Naturally, that's precisely what writer-director Tim Robbins and his anarchic Actors' Gang ensemble have in mind as the highbrow lecture gets riotously hijacked by a renegade troupe in Robbins' meta-theatrical "Harlequino: On to Freedom."
The commedia-style of bawdy, subversive street theater dates back 500 years, and the Actors' Gang has long been incorporating it. (The company's 1996 production of "The Imaginary Invalid" still ranks among my top theater experiences). So, the authentic details come as no surprise in this meticulous homage to time-burnished commedia stock characters and archetypal plots: the lecherous miser Pantalone (Pierre Adeli), the star-crossed, love-besotted young innamorati (Lee Margaret Hanson and Adam Jefferis), the conceited bumpkin Pulcinella (Bob Turton) and the wily servants Columbina (Sabra Williams) and Harlequino (Joshua R. Lamont). Sporting the characters' classic masks by Erhard Stiefel and costumes by Olivia Courtin, the rogue thespians spontaneously inject episodes from the commedia repertoire while the hapless lecturers (Turton and Will McFadden) try to regain control.
Merging abundant slapstick, clever wordplay (only some of which would be printable here) and Robbins' original songs, "Harlequino" serves as an inventive and informative deep dive into a rich theatrical tradition. Williams' performance alone is a crash course in commedia presentation.
The show's equally important objective, however, is to channel that tradition's anti-authoritarian spirit into contemporary social critique. Linking the concurrent emergence of commedia with the growing African slave trade during the early 1500s, the play explores the nature of Harlequino's servitude through a racial lens. (The show's subtitle invokes the mounting defiance of the enslaved.)
As educational and accomplished as each of the evening's episodic segments may be in illuminating a different facet of traditional commedia assaults on social hypocrisy, not all are essential. There's a little too much of a good thing here, and some firm paring would tighten the thematic through-lines and heighten the underlying message that the stakes in speaking truth to power are deadly serious.
As Robbins pointedly reminds us, in 1582, an enraged aristocrat had three commedia performers hanged after a performance. Although no actors were harmed in the making of this play, its warning about the precarious state of artistic freedom could hardly be more timely.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Harlequino: On to Freedom’
Where: The Actors' Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 9 p.m. Fridays; ends May 6
Tickets: $34.99; Thursdays are pay-what-you-can
Information: (310) 838-4264 or theactorsgang.com
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
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