Playwright Carlo Goldoni prances at the head of the
funeral procession. A line of weeping, wailing
players— hunchbacked and garbed in white union suits and silly hats— trail him. As a dirge plays upon accordion and violin, Goldoni smugly tears into a eulogy, bidding good riddance to commedia dell’arte, “a debased form of laughter which comes from watching physical distortions and deformities.” The players behind him, quailing at the condemnation of their beloved art, interrupt his speech with rapid-fire sneezes, obscene noises, and pornographic gestures. Goldoni, undaunted, holds up a zibaldoné, the legendary abecedary of commedia gags. To the players’ horror, he plops it upon the funeral pyre.
But the players have the last laugh. No sooner has the final dirge note sounded than Zibaldoné: A Commedia dell’Arte begins in earnest. Director and conceiver Christopher Bayes has crafted a delightful evening of Italian Renaissance shtick with a present-day twist. A cast of seven masked actors portray Harlequino, Pantalone, Columbina, and the others— but not Il Dottore, because, “Oh Harlequino, you know we couldn’t afford the doctor mask.” They play out six scenes, each a classic scenario of lust, greed, and treachery. But The Sixth Sense, Dukes of Hazzard, KY Jelly, and Jesse Ventura jokes lend the show a distinctly contemporary ironic flavor.
Though not strictly a commedia— the players do not appear to improvise around a loosely structured script, nor is there a simple love story at its core— Zibaldoné succeeds through its witty, raunchy script and the enthusiasm of its young and talented cast. Nearly every line they speak or off-color gesture they deploy is rewarded with guffaws and applause. How’s that for a gag reflex?