Thursday, April 7, 2011

Commedia Character Shorts- Smeraldina (Chapter 6)


Truffaldino (Arlecchino) has met his match in this high-spirited female servant (Servetta)! She occupies a special place among the Commedia characters, being one of the highest-ranking of them all.  Often the only functional intellect on the stage, Smeraldina assists her mistress (the innamorata) to gain the affections of her lover, often while simultaneously managing the whereabouts and moods of the innamorato AND managing the advances of her employer, Pantalone. She may be a flirtatious and impudent character, indeed a soubrette, but unlike any of the other servants, she never loses her keen judgment. Smeraldina is what the Innamorata is not: free, insolent, not slave of love bonds.  She is sometimes brilliant, vain always, a chatter-bug and gossiper, and always prone to intrigue at somebody else's expenses.

Carlo Goldoni uses the Colombina character quite a bit in his plays, clearly enjoying her simply wisdom and non-nonsense approach to life, truth and love. (She also is lucky to marry Truffaldino at the end of Servant of Two Masters!)  Although Columbina became the most widely-used name for this Servetta, other names under which the same character is played in Commedia performances include: Franceschina, Smeraldina, Columbina, Mirandolina, Spinetta, Ricciolina, Corallina, and sometimes in disguise as Arlecchinetta (Harlequina).

  • Smeraldina's costume is that of a high ranking servant.  As she sometimes appears as a sort of Harlequin in female clothes, she may be costumed in a dress that is a patched duplicate of Harlequin's.  She has also been known to wear heavy makeup around her eyes and carry a tambourine which she could use to fend off the amorous advances of Pantalone.
  • Smeraldina is most usually without a mask, even though all other servants are masked.
  • Smeraldina's light foot work matches that of the servants, with her weight shifting quickly and deftly between her two feet.  She also usually has her hands on her hips, with wrists bent an fingers pointing behind her.  They look almost like little wings, and aid her in her flirtatious ways.

Here is the delightful Vanessa Hughes, who plays Smeraldina in our production of "Servant of Two Masters".

As of this posting, only two performances of Servant of Two Masters remain, and only a handful of tickets are left.  Be sure to see this amazing production before its gone for good!

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    What's so funny about an April Fool?

    At Piccolo, we sure love our fools. So in honor of fools and foolishness, I set out to see what I could find about the origins of April Fools Day. It seems I set out on a fool’s errand, because the origins have not conclusively been traced.

    There are all sorts of references in early European literature to April 1st as a fool’s day, as far back as the 1500s. But Shakespeare, who is usually so fond of fools, never mentions it.  According to, there was no scholarly curiosity about the origins of April Fools until the 18th Century. By then it was so ingrained as an ancient custom that when scholars asked revelers in the street where it had come from, all they could say was “the ancients, man. Hey, what’s that big hairy thing over your left shoulder?”

    The New Years Swap Theory
    The most popular theory about the origin of April Fools takes us back to France in 1563. The idea is that when Charles IX reformed the calendar, New Year’s Day was moved from April 1st to January 1st. Instead of the eight raucous days of springtime partying the French were accustomed to, they got one measly day in the dead of winter. So a bunch of them decided to celebrate in April anyway- or they just didn’t get the news because they lived so far from the local newsstand- and they let loose with the hooplah in Spring like usual. Their neighbors, instead of informing them about the changes like one might expect a neighbor to do, stuck a paper fish on their backs and called them Poisson d’Avril, which is still what the holiday is called in France to this day.  

    Poisson d'Avril
    1632: Escape of the Duke of Lorraine
    My favorite antique April Fools plot concerns the legend of the Duke of Lorraine and his wife. They were in prison, but on April 1, 1632 they had the brilliant idea to disguise themselves as peasants and just walk out through the front gate. Someone told the guards, who were certain the warning was a “poisson d’Avril” and laughed at it- they were no fools! While the guards refused to fall for the prank, the Duke and his wife made their escape. This just goes to show how much fun you can have when you dress as a commoner. I do it all the time.

    1686: The English Get the Joke
    In 1686 the English antiquarian John Aubrey wrote, “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.” So the British, always a little late to get in on the party, were finally in on the joke.  By recording this, the scholar Aubrey managed to get in a good dig at the foolish Germans. I can picture him rolling his eyes and underlining the word everywhere three or four times. What a good prank! The Germans wouldn’t know what hit them until after his death when Aubrey’s notes were published posthumously.

    April Fools as a Renewal Festival
    There are plenty of holes in the prevailing New Years Swap theory, including the argument that the French never actually celebrated the New Year on April 1st to begin with.  Some say that was the British, and you know how the French and the English hate it when people get them confused.

    To me, the best theory is that April Fools or All Fools Day joins the ranks of the many ancient renewal festivals that marked the coming of Spring. Is there anything better than a festival creating a ritualized opportunity for mayhem and misrule? These festivals usually flipped the social order and allowed the riffraff to be king for a day. They involved disguise, deception, and the general airing out of social tensions in a way that could induce laughter instead of conflict.

    Couldn’t we use a bit of that ourselves? As Shakespeare shows us, the best Fool is an honest fool. By staying honest to the real hypocrisies, weaknesses (and strengths) she witnesses, the fool keeps the rest of us honest. I think we could really benefit from the opportunity to dress up like the politicians, CEOs, and Barons of Oil & Industry and prance around with them, eating and drinking and making them shine our shoes. (Or better yet, put on a play for us!) These festivals weren’t mean spirited. They were about releasing the phenomenal power of laughter to defuse dangerous, and very real, social tensions.

    April Fools Day bears all the marks of these ancient, powerful festivals: disguise, lying, pranks, and a one-day challenge of social rules of proper behavior. Tomorrow, it’s over. We can be secure that by morning we will be re-affirming society and carrying on as usual; just as the warmth and bounty of Spring is bound to return after even the most brutal of winters.  

    -Brianna Sloane, Piccolo Theatre Ensemble Member

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    Piccolo Theatre and "il Piccolo"

    You may not know that your favorite Chicagoland Piccolo Theatre named itself after The Piccolo Theatre of Milan, or, as the Milanese call it, il Piccolo.  Back when our ensemble was forming, there was no question what our name would be. The Piccolo Ensemble did not simply hope to pattern ourselves after this venerable theatre.  Our love of Commedia dell'Arte and our intellectual approach to the art form seemed to to be rooted in the same traditions as il Piccolo.

    Our ensemble was lucky enough to see them perform Servant of Two Masters in 2005 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. (With the famous Ferruccio Soleri as Truffaldino!)  And to top the evening off, we were able to meet the Teatro Piccolo actors at the post production party.  What a night!  Bella!

    Ferruccio Soleri (il Piccolo), John and Jan Szostek (Piccolo Theatre)
    What do you know about il Piccolo?  Unless you're really into Commedia or are in the habit of Googling unusual Italian theatres, probably not a ton, right? Just in case you're curious for a tidbit of Italian history, read on!

    Piccolo was the first public resident theatre company in Italy. It was founded by Giorgio Strehler, Paolo Grassi and Nina Vichi, and inaugurated on 14th May 1947 with Gorky's L'albergo dei Poveri (The Hotel for the Poor).

    Lady with Ermine- Leonardao da Vinci
    Its first location was in Via Rovello 2, in the old Broletto cinema in the 15th century Carmagnola building. In this building lived Cecilia Gallerani who was Ludovico il Moro's lover and the who was the model for the ‘Lady with Ermine’ painted by da Vinci. This site was restored to improve the hall and the stage. The initial restoration project did not include the restoration of the cloister, but the discovery of some 1400s frescoes (attributed to Bramanteand da Vinci) led to the recuperation of this place too. The restoration works were completed in 2009.

    The small dimensions of the hall and of the stage pushed Grassi and Strehler, during the 1960s and the 70s, to ask for a new site for the theatre. During the 80s, Strehler repeatedly resigned from his Art Director position, hoping that his protest would move the cranes that for years remained uselessly parked nearby the Sforzesco Castle. The New Piccolo Theatre was inaugurated only in 1998, a year after Strehler's death. (Chicago's Piccolo Theatre considers is extremely lucky to have a home in the Evanston Arts Depot, and that artistic director John Szostek embraces our small theatre instead of resigning out of protest.)

    Today il Piccolo is comprised of three theatre spaces:

    Teatro Strehler (new site)
    Teatro Grassi (the historical base of Via Rovello)

    Teatro Studio (mostly for experimental works)

    Since its early beginnings the aim of il Piccolo has been to deliver drama to those categories of people (retirees, workers and students) who traditionally do not go to the theatre. In the Manifesto of the Piccolo we read:
    This theatre (that is ours and yours), the first public City theatre in Italy, is promoted by the initiative of men of art and study, and is supported by the executive authority of those who are responsible for the city life. We do not believe that a theatre is what is left of mundane habits or an abstract tribute to culture. A theatre is the place where the community, meeting in order to contemplate and to re-live, reveals itself; it is the place where it tests a word, to accept it or to refuse it, and where that word, when accepted, becomes the centre of the city's activities and it suggests its rhythm.”
    (translated from Italian by
    Claudia Zanella)

    The repertoire of the Piccolo is both international and rooted into Italian tradition: Gorky, as previously mentioned, and Chekhov, but also Goldoni and Pirandello. Brecht has been performed since the late fifties and his theories on dramatic art deeply influenced Strehler. Other tremendously successful and popular works include: The Tempest by Shakespeare, The Thunderstorm by Strindberg but, most importantly, The Servant of Two Masters by Goldoni. This last piece was started to give Strehler some “rest” from his more philosophical works on the role of art, but proved itself to be the ideal play to provoke thoughts on dramatic art; it became very popular, and has been performed around the world for the last 70 years or so.

    Thank you to Servant of Two Masters dramaturg, Claudia Zanella for the research and help with this post!   

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    Commedia Character Shorts- Brighella (Chapter 5)


    If you find yourself playing a servant on a Commedia stage, you had better keep your eyes on Brighella!  He is essentially Arlecchino's smarter and much more vindictive older brother. In fact, he has few good qualities save for his ability to entertain the audience.  He's a masterful liar, and can make up a spur-of-the moment lie for any situation. He is an inveterate schemer, and is good at what he does. If his plans fail, it was almost always out of luck on behalf of the other characters. Brighella is loosely categorized as one of the servant (zanni) characters, although he is often considered a member of the middle class, for instance, the owner of an inn in Servant of Two Masters.  As a servant, he will do whatever he can to put himself in a good light and gain his master's approval.  The nobles usually know Brighella to be trusty, helpful and resourceful. However, the other side of his personality is most cruel to those beneath him on the social ladder; he even goes so far as to kill on occasion. He will do anything that is to his advantage, no matter what the cost to those below him. It's probably not stretching the truth to say he would sell his own mother if it would benefit him!

    He is an observer, and always keeps his cool...for is something upsets him he will get his revenge later either upon his aggressor or whoever is unfortunately near. His character is usually from Bergamo, same as our beloved Truffaldino. His name by itself briga, brigare is Italian for quarrel, trouble, intrigue.

    Brighella mask by Antonio Fava
    • Brighella's costume consists of a loose-fitting white smock and pants with green stripes and accents.  He often carries a knife in his belt which is useful as he is often in charge of the kitchen in his tavern or inn...and it's a good reminder to other servants who is really in charge.
    • His mask is a half-mask displaying a look of lust and greed.Traditionally the mask is colored olive green.
    • Brighella moves like a cat or panther...sly, quiet and light on his feet and always on the prowl. His chin and chest are carried forwards in the manner of a traditional zanni.

    Check this out for an insider's look into how Piccolo Ensemble Member David W.M. Kelch approaches the role of Brighella and the form of Commedia dell'Arte in general.

    Haven't seen Piccolo's acclaimed production of Servant of Two Masters yet?  Basta! You only have until April 9 and tickets are selling quickly! 
    Get your tickets online at or call our box office at 847-424-0089.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    Commedia Character Shorts- Il Dottore (Chapter 4)

    Il Dottore!

    Il Dottore is not a physician, he just has a university degree.  To hear him tell it, he probably has several of them. He and Pantalone function together as the old men trying to marry off their children and generally making a mess of it. Pantalone and Il Dottore are the alter ego of each other, Pantalone being the decadent wealthy merchant, and Il Dottore being the decadent erudite. 
    They alternate between being each other's best friend and worst enemy and are often the victims of each other's biased advice, but their schemes and machinations always seem to end up in much the same fashion: backfiring on them.  Whereas Pantalone can always take solace in his money, Il Dottore is happy to wax philosophical and will always be ready with a high-sounding misquotation or an elegant malapropism to give closure to yet another misadventure.

    The Doctor is a local, disruptive busybody who doesn't listen to anyone else from any of the fields that he claims to know about, which is many (medicine, law, literature, etc.). There is not a subject that he doesn't know everything about.  He is traditionally portrayed as having been educated either in Bologna (he is full of bologna!) which since the Renaissance had one of two of the most prestigious universities of Italy and Europe. He is often extremely rich, generally with "old" money, though the needs of the scenario might have things otherwise. He is extremely pompous, as quick-tempered as Pantalone, and loves the sound of his own voice, spouting nonsensical Latin and Greek in phrases that can go on, and on, and on, and on and onandonandonandonandon.......

    • His mask is unique in that it is the only mask in commedia dell'arte to cover only the forehead and nose. It is sometimes black, or else flesh-toned with a red nose. He also reddens his cheeks.
    • His costume usually includes a large stomach pad so he looks rather fat (fat = rich), always dresses in black, is well groomed, rich looking.
    • Dottore's movement is often in a figure 8 pattern, with his weight back on his heels and his belly forward.  His gestures are as expansive as his knowledge appears to be.
    Joel Thompson plays the pompous and hilariously long-winded Dottore in our Servant of Two Masters.

    Get your tickets to Servant of Two Masters today, and laugh with us soon! Want to see what the critics have to say?   Click on our review round up here.
    Piccolo Box Office: 847-424-0089 or online at 

    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    This Just In! Early Praise for Servant of Two Masters

    We had such a fantastic opening night with Servant of Two Masters!  I'm not sure who had more fun- the audience or the actors.  Well, we do know that the critics enjoyed it.  Take a peek at what they have to say, and click the links to see the entire review.  We have absolutely nothing to hide with these reviews!

    Highly Recommended! "The folks at Piccolo Theatre have emerged as one of the few theatre troupes skilled and disciplined enough to create wonderful Commedia dell’Arte."
    -Tom Williams,

    Recommended! "Omen Sade is a spectacular highpoint as the title servant. Sade is more than just quick on his feet--he exemplifies physical comedy."
    -Dan Jakes,

    Photo by

    "...a kinetic exploration of the art of performance...This successful venture is another testament to Mr. Szostek and his cast's love of performance."
    -Brian Murphy, Evanston Roundtable

    "...A fresh, delightful, and laugh-out-loud funny production. Physical comedy is the order of the day, and director John Szostek has brilliantly coordinated the interactions of a very energetic and acrobatically talented cast."
    -Laura Kolb,

    "...this company performs pure “Commedia dell’Arte”! And what they do is sheer perfection." -Alan Bresloff,

    Photo by
    "This The Servant of Two Masters offers an embarrassment of comedic riches." -Tom Wittom, Evanston Review

    "...[Omen Sade] really got to the heart of Truffaldino, and the quick physical movements, the flights of fancy, and the schemes.  He was a delight to watch. -Adam Gertsacov,

    "...the production delivers charm as well as energy. The simple pleasure of buffoonery – that is the hearty spectacle that Piccolo achieves in its economically tiny space."
    -Paige Listerud,

    Photo by

    Now what are you waiting for?  Don't get caught in the "I'll buy tickets later" trap. Get them today, and laugh with us soon! 
    Piccolo Box Office: 847-424-0089 or online at 

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    Commedia Character Shorts- Innamorati (Chapter 3)


    The Innamorati, or Lovers, are delightful characters!  They create situations of desperation, gossip, envy, and are always stumbling upon obstacles that keeps them apart from their lover...all excellent material around which action can be developed for all of the other characters. Being separated from their lover (could there be anything worse?) gives them reason to strongly lament and moan their state, although when finally face to face, they are at a complete loss for words. Or they speak in an elegantly  heightened speech of the upper class, close to poetry and sonnet. In dire situations, they have the habit of enlisting the help of a servant to act as a medium between the two of them, which of course only opens the door for confusion and hijinks caused by their hapless servants. Very selfish and self-centered, the Lovers are in their own worlds in which they themselves are the most important subjects. Along with loving themselves, they are in love with the very idea of love and what it pertains to. They are vain, thoughtless, change emotions on a whim, and could be cruel and callous while professing the most profound of loves. Attractive and elegant, they can still be as comic and as flawed as any of the other characters.

    There can be two sets of lovers in a Commedia dell'Arte play/scenario.  The First Lovers, usually more intelligent and serious, and the Second Lovers, usually flighty and slightly silly.

    The First Lovers (sometimes called the straight lovers) in Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters are Beatrice and Florindo. They are cultured, educated, and seem to have a much broader life experience than the Second Lovers.  Their attraction and love for each other is based on the feeling that they are true equals both in character, social status, and intelligence, and as a team they would be quite a force to be reckoned with. Even though the First Lovers are usually the most grounded characters on stage, they are still prone to bouts of deep melancholy, selfishly pursuing their needs with little heed to anyone else, and taking their frustrations out on servants.  Their manner of dress and movement is stylized (see 'posture' below).

    The Second Lovers in Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters, are Clarice and Silvio.  They appear quite young and their love for each other is similarly immature in nature.  While still professed as true love, theirs is rooted in image, pretense and pure fluffy romance (think a sappy romance novel). When things are not going their way, they throw tantrums, pout, hurl insults, cry and whine. Their manner of dress and movement is highly stylized (more so than the First Lovers), making Silvio is quite a fop and Clarice a brilliant coquette. 
    • The Lovers elegant costumes were always in the latest fashion, (often to styled to excess) and usually of the same color, just in case another couple of Lovers was in the play too. This only reaffirms how much they were made for each other.  Just like couples who wear matching outfits today!
    • The Lovers are the only Commedia characters who are not masked. (With the occasional exception of the Smeraldina/Columbina character.)
    • The posture that the Lovers take on is that of strong pride. Their chests are expanded and thrust out so that the heart essentially leads them, sometimes seeming to literally pull them across the stage. They balletically point their toes while standing, and when moving, take light, quick steps, giving them a floating appearance.  Overall, they lack contact with the ground and seem to float rather than take steps. Their hand movements and gestures are very grand, expansive and expressive.

    Actors Denita Linnertz and Tommy Venuti play the heroic and tragically separated Beatrice and Florindo in Servant of Two Masters.

    Actors Deborah Craft and Glenn Proud (married to each other in their off-stage lives) are playing the passionate and hilarious Clarice and Silvio.

    Opening weekend was a raving success for Servant of Two Masters!  The reviews are rolling in, and the critics LOVE what they are seeing. We want to have you rolling in our aisles. Visit the Piccolo Theatre Website for information on how to get your tickets today.

    Check back soon for links to the great reviews and the next installment of Commedia Character Shorts!