St. Ambrose University's Commedia Dell'arte, which closed its one-weekend run on April 19 *, was like nothing I'd previously seen on a local stage. Director/writer Daniel Rairdin-Hale and composer Dillon Rairdin put together a production that felt like a sequence of sketch-comedy bits and musical numbers, but one linked by a story about a mistaken romance forbidden by two fathers. Servants step in to help the young lovers, and hilarity ensued by way of juggling, dancing, singing, the playing of instruments, and comical gags both aural and physical, with most of the actors performing in mask.
At times, Friday's performance reminded me of the television show Laugh-In, with its quick changes from one comical bit to the next. This was particularly true when the actors would peek out from above and through a curtain and, usually in pairs, deliver jokes much like in Laugh-In's wall of doors ... or Hee Haw's cornfield. One of these bits involved two sets of potential lovers (Kayla Lansing and Vince Solis, and Alexis Greene and Nevada Nilsson) speaking out to the audience as though each couple was in an online chatroom, or on the dating app Tinder, introducing themselves to one another. After humorous, shallow prattle, one of the paired actors said to the other, "Let's meet," and they both turned their heads and looked directly at each other, thus, in an instant, finally "meeting" face to face.
Dressed by costume designer Dianne Dye in 16th-century garb and performing on designer Kristofer Eitrheim's makeshift stage set up on the actual stage, Commedia Dell'arte felt period in nature, though it was peppered with modern references such as lines from Into the Woods, a nod to Katy Perry's "Firework," and even the novelty song "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." There was also a duet that, as the performers explained, avoided a potential copyright-infringement lawsuit from Disney by changing just one word, making the song "Love is an Open Chore" instead of "... Door." (The scene ended with the Frozen reference "We should just let it go.")
In truth, the humor frequently leaned toward the stupid, with groan-worthy gags rather than those that would garner legitimate guffaws. For example, Sam Jones' Dottore - the master of ceremonies, of sorts, for this series of sketches - entered with an Italian flourish, saying "Bon voyage! Chef Boyardee!" and other Italian-ish phrases. But Jones also said he had five doctorates in absurd studies such as "something to do with cheese," "the third Harry Potter book," and English ... the latter rendered absurd when someone said, dumbfounded, "English? What are you going to do with an English degree?" Meanwhile, a series of statements that found Brooke Schelly's Arlecchino and Rachael Pribulsky's Colombina professing their love, each attempting to top the other, ended with the line "I love you more than Kanye loves Kanye."
The cast - which included Meghan Cessna, Amelia Fischer, Jackson Green, and Shannon Rourke - played up the ridiculousness of the piece by exaggerating their movements and inflections. And while all did a fantastic job of it, none embraced the absurdity as much as Schelly as the servant trickster Arlecchino. Her physical comedy was a standout as she bowed with flourishes that said "yes" while her lips said "no," or fell to the floor repeatedly as she was hit with a stick. Though her face was hidden behind one of Rairdin-Hale's gorgeously designed masks, Schelly's emotion was abundantly clear through overly emphasized body language and vocal timbre, and while this was my first encounter with the theatrical genre of commedia dell'arte, I somehow know that Schelly, through her performance, embodied it.
Though I prefer humor that's sharper than the base jokes in Commedia Dell'arte, I appreciated the passion behind St. Ambrose's production. There was obvious pride in this piece, both in its development and its presentation, and there should have been, because Rairdin-Hale and his cast and crew came up with something so unique it was not to be missed.
* Commedia Dell'arte will be presented in two additional public performances: At the Freight House Farmers Market (421 W. River Drive, Davenport) on Saturday, April 25 at 10 a.m., and at Davenport Junior Theatre (2822 Eastern Avenue) on Sunday, April 26 at 1 p.m.; donations at the latter performance will be split between Junior Theatre and St. Ambrose University.
For more information on St. Ambrose University's theatre department, visit SAU.edu/theatre.