“Il Campiello” by Ten Thousand Things Theater at Open Book

October 28, 2011
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Elise Langer, Kimberly Richardson, Sarah Agnew and Karen Wiese-Thompson in Il Campiello. Photo: Paula Keller.

Ten Thousand Things Theater continues its practice of bringing theater to people who may otherwise never see it with a new adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s Il Campiello. Steven Epp’s adaptation is commedia-inspired fun—a little Laurel & Hardy, a little light satire, and lots of lazzi (“schtick” identified often with a certain character and repeated for comic effect).

TTT’s artistic director and the director of the production, Michelle Hensley, announced before Friday’s opening at Open Book, that even the boys at one of the correctional facilities where they performed couldn’t help but laugh — and neither could we.

Written for the Venetian Carnival of 1756 to “enliven the scene,” Goldoni reported, in this production there are only mentions of the event. These are the working poor and Carnival is little more than an excuse to gamble more than usual. The campiello—the village square—brings them together largely because there’s nowhere for them to go. There they are, looking across the square at each other, and there we are, looking across the in-the-round stage at each other. It’s a perfect fit for this play.

The action is largely squabbling over trifles with each other, trifles over which they have been squabbling forever. Beyond that, the two widows, Pasqua (Sarah Agnew) and Catte (Karen Wiese-Thompson) want to marry off their daughters, but they’re just as interested in finding husbands of their own. Not likely. Then a stranger wanders into their little square; Cavalier (Randy Reyes), a nobleman from Naples, has only enough money to last through Carnival. This is enough to qualify as an inciting incident.

At their core, the people who inhabit the campiello have good hearts and care, in their off-hand way, about each other and their little corner of the world. Cavalier seems to realize this from the outset and is immediately taken with it. “Sweet as sunshine one minute and a rock thrown at your head the next,” he says. But more, he’s taken with Gasparina (Christiana Clark). She is statuesque and curvy; he is short and slight, a dandy setup for wonderful bits of nonsense.

The widows’ daughters, Lucietta (Elise Langer), and Agnese (Kimberly Richardson) have their sights set on Zorzetto (Brian Curtis James) and Anzoletto (Nathan Keepers), respectively. The girls are not allowed to leave their houses, generally, so there’s a good bit of business set up by hormones conflicting with their upbringing. Richardson’s Agnese is frightened of everything. (“I threw up in my mouth,” she tosses off.) And Langer’s Lucietta of nothing—a feisty match for the tough-guy posturing of her beau.

Keepers called up a baffling assortment of physical tricks for the young Anzoletto, then intermittently reappearing as the old uncle, Fabrizio. Agnew as an old crone was hilarious breezing through her props-hidden-in-the-skirt lazzi. Even if you’re not a fan of physical comedy (and I am), Agnew and Keepers, in particular, are so good that I guarantee you will be laughing.

Epp’s script, written in his distinctive voice, has the sound of children at spontaneous play. While it’s engaging in the moment, it’s also a bit like following the “plot” acted out by kids playing in the backyard: quick interactions strung together on a simple premise, such as “let’s play house,” or “let’s play wedding.”

There’s a reason Commedia dell’Arte theater worked so well: everybody already knew the characters, their relationships and their motivations. In this play, it’s less clear—fun moment-to-moment, but the larger picture is fuzzy. Once you figure it out, however, you realize that there’s not enough of a plot to fret about anyway. This is about character—a happy joke about our nonsensical quibbles and shallow motivations.  Music director Peter Vitale underscores this with live, acoustic sound effects and lively tunes on the accordion.

Of course there is a wedding—two, in fact—and a good bit of drinking to celebrate. That just makes for more rowdy, noisy fun. So, in the language of the play, “Don’t be a poop-turd.” Join in!

Il Campiello runs through November 20 at Open Book, but you may be able to share the experience in a prison, housing project or homeless shelter. Check www.tenthousandthings.org for information.

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