Masked masters stop by Minnesota

Piccolo Teatro di Milano, a renowned Italian theater troupe, will delight with its brand of stock comedy

Don M. Burrows

Italy has its own style. And that goes for theater as well. Theater masks, jest and trickery will take over the Twin Cities as the Piccolo Teatro di Milano comes to town.

The world-renowned theater troupe has shown off for 60 years but brings its flagship production to Minnesota for the first time.

“Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters,” promises 18th century humor that still resonates today. Written by Carlo Goldoni in 1745, the play features a servant (Arlecchino), his two masters and an entanglement of several lovers. The humor, like in so many classic comedies, lies in the misunderstandings the servant finds himself in, or more often, causes.

True to the original staging, many of the actors wear masks. This amplifies, rather than muffles, the tone of the performance.

“If you want to act with a mask on your face, it is very difficult, so you are obliged to use very emphatic movement if you want to express emotion to the audience,” said Lanfranco Li Cauli, education and communications manager for the production. “So the mask creates a very original way of acting.”

These masks are also an integral part of the genre, called Commedia dell’Arte. Any 18th-century Commedia dell’Arte would have featured masked, stock characters familiar to the audience.

“In ‘Arlecchino,’ like in all Commedia dell’Arte plays, you will find the same characters,” Li Cauli said. “You’ll always find an Arlecchino as a servant. You’ll always find Pantalone as an old rich man. You’ll always find a young couple of lovers.”

Originally, commedia plays were almost completely improvised. The addition of a script is what makes Goldoni’s “Arlecchino” ground-breaking. So while “Arlecchino” is considered a masterpiece of Commedia dell’Arte, the changes Goldoni brought with the play (and in later ones) signaled the end of the genre.

However, “Arlecchino” will still include improvisation, Li Cauli said, mostly of the emphatic gestures that accompany the acting. The actors also rely on audience interaction, so each performance ends up unique, modified slightly by the reaction of that group of viewers.

Minnesota playing host to such a unique theatrical tradition is a rare gift, and the Piccolo Teatro will be making it even richer for many in the community. The theater company, founded in 1947, was formed “with a very special artistic and social aim,” Li Cauli explained. “Our slogan was and still is to create a theater of art for everybody, for every kind of audience.”

This includes outreach, and the Piccolo Teatro has been working with students in the University’s Italian studies program. Symposia and workshops accompany the performances, and the company will work with local schools.

Li Cauli said he is confident modern audiences will appreciate the staging of the 18th-century play.

“There are some moments when you can’t not laugh. The expressions, the situations, are very human situations,” he said. “You laugh, because it’s life.”