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Nobility Takes It on the Chin

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Mirandola

Noble Fool Theater Company

The Green Bird

Strawdog Theatre Company

In 1727, a 20-year-old law student named Carlo Goldoni was so traumatized one day by the torture of a "sinful monk" in the town of Modena that he wanted to renounce the world. But his father, a country doctor, proffered an unusual prescription for his son's melancholia: visits to the theater. After attending a few productions, young Carlo was hale and hearty. Even at that time Goldoni manifested two beliefs that would define his career: a passion for the common people (of which he was one) and an unwavering belief that theater could transform the human heart. When he gave up the law at age 26, only a year after being admitted to the Venetian bar, these dual passions helped make him one of the greatest innovators in the history of Italian theater.

It was an institution in dire need of upheaval. Unlike French theater, which had been revolutionized and humanized by Moliere (another former law student) in the latter part of the 17th century, Italian theater clung to the past. In about 1690 the Arcadia was founded in Rome in an attempt to impose the ancient literary rules of Petrarca and Anacreon; in the early 18th century, this institution engendered numerous similarly conservative "academies." Meanwhile the populist commedia dell'arte--innovative masked improvisational satires--had reached its peak around 1650 and then fossilized into endlessly repeated stock scenarios.

The ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau were in the air, and Goldoni took the bold step of turning commedia types into real people. In 1749 he wrote A Girl of Honor, giving common folk equal footing with aristocrats on the Italian stage for the first time. A year later he banished masks from the actors in The Gentleman and the Lady and began to make his views clear: for the most part commoners were plucky and industrious while aristocrats were dissipated and self-serving. (A full decade after The Gentleman and the Lady debuted, the nobility were still in a furor; in 1761 the Marchese Albergati moaned to Voltaire that Goldoni had "exposed the secrets of the gallantry to the profane eyes of the rabble.")

By the time Goldoni wrote Mirandolina, in 1753, he was at his peak as a dramatist (having made it through the "terrible year" of 1750, when he promised and delivered 16 plays). Here the unmarried working-class innkeeper Mirandolina--whose beauty seems to charm any man who wanders within ten miles of her--has forged a respectable independent life while outsmarting her pompous, preening suitors, the Count Albafiorita and Marquess of Forlipopoli. When the self-absorbed misogynist Ripafratta grumbles into her inn, noisily espousing his contempt for all things female, Mirandolina commits every ounce of her abundant creativity to cracking open his granite heart and reducing him to putty--all for sport.

Mirandolina may be integral to the birth of modern comedy, but it seems a curious opening piece for the Noble Fool's shiny new multistoried theater complex in the Loop. Having gained their audience through the interactive improv event Flanagan's Wake--the show that also apparently earned this relatively untested company a million dollars in TIF funds--a 250-year-old stylized piece like Mirandolina wouldn't seem to cater to either their audience or their strengths as a company. It's something of a surprise to find how entertaining this uneven and at times hollow production is.

The lion's share of the credit goes to the gracious and spirited Karen Janes Woditsch in the title role: she also acts as a charming hostess who ushers us through Goldoni's vibrant world. Saddled with Ranjit Bolt's vernacular-heavy translation, further slummed down with Americanisms added by the company, Woditsch walks a delicate line between the 18th and 21st centuries, carrying herself with old-world dignity yet never betraying any Masterpiece Theatre pretense. In her numerous asides, letting the audience in on every step of her plan to deliver Ripafratta the coup de grace, she makes it clear that she's speaking to us today in this very room (a reality that's hard to avoid given the cramped intimacy of this new space) while inviting us to pretend that the rules of 18th-century courtship still apply.

Unfortunately the strictness of social place--one of the salient features of Goldoni's world, and one from which much of his comedy springs--is barely sketched in this wholly Americanized production, flattening his social critique. While Mirandolina, who represents the emerging merchant class, has some freedom to maneuver among castes, the nobility and servants do not. Yet only Gary Alexander as Count Albafiorita's servant seems steeped in the psychology of a past century, exuding abject servitude in every glance and gesture. Unlike the other actors portraying servants, who claim as much stage space as their masters while fishing for laughs, Alexander makes a concerted and hilarious effort to render himself invisible, though all the while his character is aching to jump into the action to rescue his foolish master from himself. In his quiet, restrained portrayal we see the servant's contradictory feelings for the count, a blowhard whom he inexplicably adores. It's the richest, most nuanced performance of the evening, and an exquisite accomplishment given that Alexander has exactly two lines.

For most of the rest of the cast, a postcollegiate informality lies just beneath the surface, softening the social collisions that should give the play more explosive moments. Director Steve Scott can't seem to put much starch into his actors' underpants, but he does manage to bring out the comedy at the heart of Goldoni's play, especially with the help of Woditsch's warm portrayal. There's genuine pathos when the count and the marquess acknowledge their utter failure to win Mirandolina's hand, and while Kevin Christopher Fox as Ripafratta too often mistakes noise for comedy, his journey from unfeeling lout to fawning schoolboy can't help but touch the hardest heart.

The Granelleschi Acad-emy in Venice, founded in 1747 to preserve the literary styles of antiquity, naturally lashed out at Goldoni for his impudence in bringing the common people--not to mention the common Venetian dialect--to the stage. One of its most vocal members was an impoverished nobleman named Carlo Gozzi, who called Goldoni a "sewer writer" for depicting the "rabble" as "living models of virtue and responsibility" while portraying "true nobility" as "a mirror of wickedness." He continued, "I suspect that he did this in order to win the favor of the lower classes which are forever rebelling against the necessary yoke of submission."

As a democratizing wind began to blow apart Europe's vestigial aristocracy, Gozzi clung to dying traditions, even ridiculing the study of mathematics and science as "one of the vilest plots against humanistic learning and the sanctity of traditional lore." For him Goldoni epitomized everything new and horrid, so he picked up his pen in retaliation. Portraying the other playwright as a three-headed monster, drunk, and dolt, Gozzi offered unyielding harangues that in 1761 drove Goldoni from his home country; he died penniless in Paris 33 years later. Paradoxically, Gozzi's fervent attempts to keep the art form from changing had the opposite effect; his own fantastical, exotic commedia fables helped pave the way for romanticism.

The Green Bird was one of Gozzi's most famous plays. Set in a make-believe kingdom, it tells the story of 18-year-old twins Renzo and Barbarina, born of King Tartaglia and his beloved Queen Ninetta. The king's jealous mother, Tartagliona, tells her son that the children are not his; his queen mated with a hound and gave birth to puppies. Tartagliona orders her prophet to kill the children, but when he takes them to the river for drowning, they float away. Raised by a pair of sausage stuffers, the twins grow into philosophers who eschew all self-love--until they meet a talking statue (head only) who advises them to throw a rock at a certain palace in order to gain untold wealth. Meanwhile Queen Ninetta, buried alive for 18 years, has been sustained by seeds brought to her by a mysterious green bird, the same bird Barbarina has fallen in love with.

Gozzi's symbology is as alluring as it is maddeningly obscure, cascading from the author's addled mind with a randomness that makes meaning nearly impossible to elicit. Given the text's opacity, adapter Steven Epp (who penned this version for the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis in 1993) chooses to skate along its surface, packing the script with cheap contemporary references and never missing an opportunity to lampoon Gozzi's bizarre flights of fancy. These are particularly easy targets, and in the end Epp seems more interested in ridiculing than understanding the play.

Director Nic Dimond's staging is as lowbrow as the script. At times his plebeian approach goes so far that an ingenious uber cheapness results, as when the enormous stone head can barely maneuver on- or offstage in Strawdog's tight confines. And the spirited cast regularly employ Epp's burlesque to excellent comic effect, playing it to the hilt, then apologizing to the audience for their labored shtick. But ultimately the drive to be ridiculous makes this a production with more clutter than heart, its two and a half hours nearly squandered.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Collett Powell, Dave Brennan.

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