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A MAGICAL EXERCISE IN THEATRE FUSION

Print Version

Comic Interludes: The Romance of Flavio and Isabella
Director and dramaturge Pedro Ilgenfritz
presented by The Edge and LAB Theatre

at Aotea Square, Auckland
21 Dec 2012

Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 22 Dec 2012


Creating free outdoor theatre is always a challenge and in Auckland trebly so because here we have the weather, the weather, and then the next bout of weather and it's often crazily different literally from minute to minute as non-Jafas delight in reminding us.  

I say ‘bout' because the weather is always there and you always have to battle with it. [See ‘Further observations on outdoor performance', below.]

Going to the theatre – indoors or out – is all about the audience experience and, in this regard, I have two criticisms of the presentation of Comic Interludes: The Romance of Flavio and Isabella.

The first relates to the fact that the audience was seated on the steps down from Queen Street and in 20 or so deck chairs in the blistering sun facing the Aotea Centre for 40 minutes at 5pm and the second is allied to this concern. At 30 degrees behind the stage – an angle loved by lighting designers – the sun was slowly sinking in the cloudless sky and shining directly into the eyes of an audience of 50 or so engrossed patrons. Nowhere was there any shade at all and the actors were only marginally better off. 

Did this affect my enjoyment of the show? Yes it did. Significantly. Did it affect audience numbers? I believe it did.

Everything else was splendid, magical, exquisite.

The press release received from director/dramaturg/teacher Pedro Ilgenfritz describes the plot thus: Falvio falls in love with Isabella who is promised to another man (King Yo) by her father Misi. Ofa hatches a plan to swap Isabella for Arlecchino as a fake bride and allow the lovers to escape.

Yes, I hear you sigh, a standard Commedia dell'Arte plot line, simple and robust.

It certainly is that but it is also much, much more. While having all the structure and appearance of classical Commedia it manages a subtle Pasifika flava as well. It's there in the costumes and the text – and certainly the improvisation – and each deviation from the classic form is truly delightful. 

Commedia dell'Arte, developed in 16th century Italy, relies on stock themes such as jealousy, love, infidelity and age; stock characters such as the lovers, master and servant, who are often masked in hard or soft-face masks, each exemplifying meticulously a single emotion such as sarcasm, sadness, foolishness, overt happiness or perplexity.  Many of the characters have become household names: Arlecchino, Pierrot, Scaramouche, Columbina and Pantalone to name but a few. 

The Renaissance Italian companies toured widely throughout Europe and influenced great performance artists such as Goldoni, Donizetti, Moliere, Shakespeare, Mozart, Marivaux and Beaumarchais and their influence is still widely felt today. These troupes of touring professionals were groundbreaking in many ways, not the least of which was permitting women to play female roles, a fact that outraged the ever-volatile Ben Johnson to such a degree that he referred to one Commedia actress as a ‘tumbling whore'. 

The LAB Theatre actors, under the watchful, talented and perceptive eye of teacher/director Pedro Ilgenfritz, are true to the classical components of Commedia and demonstrate an understanding and commitment to the form that is quite rare in this country. Each brings a quality to the performance that is of the highest order and from the moment we heard the line “my master is in love” we knew what we were in for. 

lgenfritz's excellent company is made up of performers of talent, skill and ingenuity.

Katie Burson plays Arlecchino, Flavio's servant, with real verve and cunning. Kelly Nash, the gorgeous love interest Isabella – around whom the plot buzzes – is priceless. Jonny Moffatt as Flavio the lover and Hans Masoe as King Yo are manly and forthright.

Nastassia Wolfgramm as Ofa is a mischievous plotter and the excellent cast is rounded out in splendid fashion by Lynette Fesuluai as Misi and Jeremy Hewett as King Yo's servant Li'l Yo. Each of the characters has a classical parallel, the plot is easy to follow and the overall impression is one of professionalism. 

The costumes (Barbara Tee) are immensely impressive with Isabella's being an absolute stand out. 

No classical Commedia dell'Arte production would succeed without masks of the finest quality and Comic Interludes: The Romance of Flavio and Isabella, with masks made by Alberto Sarria (Italy) and Kim Merry (New Zealand), has some of the best I have ever seen. Having quality masks is only part of the equation of course and this cast certainly knows how to use them to maximum effect.

Matters technical are in the expert hands of Michael Forkert whose expertise adds considerably to the experience.

Last but certainly not least is Brent Hargreaves' magnificent mobile stage. This is a piece of pure genius and provides both a classical look and a functional structure for the artists to work from. Every company should have one!

I have little doubt that LAB Theatre's Comic Interludes: The Romance of Flavio and Isabella will surface again over the summer  and I'd certainly encourage everyone to see it. It's a magical exercise in theatre fusion performed by some of the best exponents of this difficult art you'll ever get to see. It's an exquisitely produced journey back into Renaissance Europe but with just enough modernity to keep it completely fresh.

Take sunblock – and use it - and maybe a parasol. You won't regret either and here's hoping you find Brent Hargreaves' fabulous stage set up in such a way that you're not looking directly into the sun and can sit comfortably in the shade.  

If the producers achieve this, you're in for the absolute treat of a lifetime! 

Glossary:
The classical character parallels for this production are as follows:
Arlecchino (Flavio's servant) remains as Arlecchino
Ofa (Misi's servant) would have been named Brighella
Flavio (Lover) would have been called innamorati
Isabella (Lover) would have been called innamorati
Misi would have been called Pantalone
King Yo would have been called Pulcinella
Li'l Yo would have been called Zanni

Further observations on outdoor performance

There are different sets of questions that need to be asked when creating performance work for the outdoors. Do we need to amplify the sound? What do we do if it rains? Where do the actors prepare and retire to? Do we need artificial lighting? Where will the audience be seated and, if the show is free, how do we ensure that the public stay where they're supposed to be?

Performance in multi-use public spaces is always at risk of interruption by people simply going about their everyday lives and expecting to do so without the impediment of a troupe of actors getting in their way.

Then there's perhaps the second biggest problem to solve: how to comply with the by-laws that apply to local authority governed spaces and how to interact with city officials for whom the performing arts assume an importance 1,000 places below parking and dog poop.

I say the second biggest problem because first place is always taken by the question – or questions – you forgot to ask and which turn up on the day to bite your venture firmly on the bum.

From personal experience I would suggest – with a tremble in my voice – that the question often overlooked by theatre producers and event managers alike is, “What do we do if it's too hot?” SWOT analyses are full of rain contingencies but seldom have I seen any consideration given to the possibility of extreme hot temperatures apart from advertising the need to liberally apply sunscreen and, in some cases, providing it. 

Logistical – and funding – expectations from council events people often overcome common sense. I recall a family summer production in Christchurch, scheduled for evening performances and one added matinee, finally cancelling the matinee despite the council insisting it proceed when the temperatures on stage were 15 degrees hotter than those that would have seen a marathon cancelled. The reason for wishing to continue – it's advertised in the programme and people might come.

It's a health and safety issue and must always be factored in. 
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