Commedia dell’arte: Colorful costumes, masks and a whole lot of improv

Published: April 1, 2017


KARACHI  : Commedia dell’arte is a form of theatre which originated in 16th century Italy. Characterised by stock characters, masks and improvised performances loosely based on sketches, the art influenced many playwrights, including Shakespeare.

And while its influences can still be seen in a large number of films, television and theatre productions, one would not expect to see a true Commedia dell’arte performance live in Karachi. But National Academy of Performing Arts’ (Napa) International Theatre and Music Festival offered one such play on the night of March 31.

Directed by Italian director Marco Luly, the play had no set except for a table full of distinct masks. It didn’t contain a coherent storyline as such either, but rather different entertaining scenes performed by the actors. Theatre generally breaks the fourth wall, incorporating monologues directed at the audience and other techniques. But the element that stood out was that the actors were playing themselves and the audience on stage. A lot of improv comes into play here and while a few actors performed the scene at a given point, others sat around as spectators, like a bunch of people telling stories at a campfire.

The play used stock characters such as two lovers, a beggar (Aqeel Ahmed) who came in different disguises and a woman (Sadaf Hirani) looking for her lost husband. Such clichéd characters are merely used to take the story forward and serve no other purpose. But it just provided another layer of humor.

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Ahmed’s funny body language, Hirani’s annoying shrieks, and their constant interference in the sketches kept the flow of the play intact. Another stock character, a know-it-all doctor (Shahjahan Narejo) garnered a huge reaction too when he interrupted the director mid-sentence to ‘enlighten’ the audience with the correct information. “Commedia dell’arte did not originate in Italy, but in the stone age…” he yelled, as other players took him away and calmed him down time and again. This guy is someone who always has an opinion on everything and believes it to be facts. Annoying, yet entertaining.

It is important to note that commedia dell’arte usually incorporates the exaggerated slapstick and more dramatic style of performances. But here, most of the actors played as naturally as they could, which perhaps took away from some of the mystique of the art form. But also, it possibly toned down this interesting art form to make it digestible for local audience. Among the ensemble cast, only Vajdaan Shah, Baneen Mirza and director Marco truly embodied the stylistic elements of the performance. Vajdaan began the show with the story of how he became a jester while Marco conducted the ensemble cast like a maestro.

Crowd participation also came into play in several scenes when Marco handed over an imaginary chicken to an audience member to grill or when he went into kiss people goodbye before drinking a bottle of wine he believed was poisoned. While the team only had two to three days to rehearse, the play turned out to be a decent showing – full of memorable laughs, unique presentation and not heavy on the mind, i.e. a perfect escape.

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