Elemental Theatre’s wacky King Stag
BOSOM BUDDIES: Dersham and Rossini.
Outdoor summer performances have so much going against them. Whether amidst trees or in the concrete confines of Waterplace Park, where Elemental Theatre’s King Stag recently had its first show, onstage antics are in competition with everything from strolling passersby to pigeons soaring in to have a look.
Fighting distraction with distractions seems to be a good rule to follow, and this production provides enough attention-grabbing onstage antics to compete with anything short of peripheral gunfire.
King Stag, by 18th-century master of Italian comedy Carlo Gozzi, has skillfully been adapted into rhymed verse by Dave Rabinow and directed at a finger-snapping pace by Peter Sampieri. Lyrics by Rabinow to music by Paul Leonard Scharf enhance the frolicsome tone.
A cast of nine lunge about at breakneck speed to play 25 characters, leaving us out of breath just sitting there. (The only noticeable glitch at the premiere was a timing rather than costume malfunction, but Kelly Nichols turned that into laughter by improvising — or so we were led to believe — to the actor on stage that it was taking her longer than expected to get dressed.) There’s wide latitude for spontaneity or its well-practiced simulation here, since the original play drew from the improvisations of commedia dell’arte.
The story itself is, of course, mostly an excuse for such incidental folderol. Even the name of the mythical kingdom we find ourselves in — Serendip — is a re¬minder to expect serendipitous happenings. The country is unhappy because the king is miserable. King Deramo (Alexander Platt) has been unable to find a worthy wife. Eventually, his sinister prime minister, Tartaglia (Rabinow), traps him with a magic spell in the body of a stag that the king has shot. Lucky for Deramo, a poor old peasant (Aaron Rossini) is soon killed, and the king can inhabit his body to speak.
There are prior and subsequent complications, since the prime minister wants his royal boss to fall for his daughter Clarissa (Jillian Blevins), who is inconveniently in love with the young Leander (Kelby T. Atkin). The duplicitous Tartaglia isn’t likely to thwart the course of true love, though, since the king has a magical statue that laughs uproariously when it hears someone lying. The virtuous and otherwise honest Angela (Paola Grande) has always loved Deramo, though, so a happy ending is assured.
Other problems are also resolved, such as the enchantment of the mighty wizardess Durandarte (Nichols) into a parrot and the recurring pickle-induced flatulence of the multipurpose comical character Smeraldina (D’Arcy Dersham). That sort of low humor from the original play is faithfully represented here, and the adaptation even starts out by making implicit fun of taking things too seriously. An opening song declares that this production, since it deals with the eternal themes of life and love, is “the most serious play in the world.” In fact, it’s “so highfalutin, it will remind you of Vladimir Putin.”
In mid-18th-century Venice, Gozzi was so successful with his form of comic theater that he effectively drove his main professional competitor, Carlo Goldoni, out of the city. Goldoni wrote and promoted a witty rather than lowbrow form of comedy and had no use for the traditional commedia dell’arte from which Gozzi drew his inspiration and techniques. As broad-humored as Punch and Judy shows, his comedies were eagerly accepted by audiences, especially when he started basing them on fairy tales and mythic subjects. Such plays as The King Stag, The Serpent Woman, and The Blue Monster had the immediacy of their fantasy hooks and the staying power of the aristocratic playwright’s talent for satire. The Puccini opera Turandot was based on the Gozzi play of the same name, about the vengeful, man-hating title character.
Elemental Theatre was formed by 2002 graduates of Trinity Rep Conservatory and has produced the annual Outbursts! series of short plays at the Four Corners Arts Center in Tiverton. Director Sampieri was the first person ever to direct a main stage production at Trinity Rep — Wit in 2002 — while still an MFA student at the Conservatory.
There will be at least 10 more free performances of King Stag this summer, most outdoors and all at 6 pm. The next is July 8 at Moses Brown School. Three other performances at Waterplace Park will be on WaterFire evenings (July 14, 28, and August 18). For additional dates and locations around the state, go to www.elementaltheatre.org.
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