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COMMENTARY

Funny Thing . . .

As currently seen on Southern California stages, two centuries-old comedies revive and remake tradition, adding a heartfelt touch. Credit the directors.

August 15, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

With Carlo Gozzi's "The Green Bird" and Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's "Changes of Heart," two of the best productions on California stages at the moment, it might seem that 1996 is the summer of commedia dell'arte.

After all, we're practically awash in masks, clowns known as Harlequin or Truffaldino, young lovers, intrigue and physical comedy. But, in fact, to be literal about it, we celebrate commedia all the time. We celebrate it, for example, whenever we go to see the Groundlings or Acme Comedy Theatre--two L.A.-based improvisational comedy troupes.

The heart of commedia dell'arte, the popular Italian comedy first recorded in the middle of the 16th century, was improvisation. Actors improvised from a repertory of scenarios that were often bawdy, throwing in lots of comment on the issues of the day. Roving commedia troupes attacked the pretensions of good society and simulated anarchy with their improvised ways.

By contrast, neither "The Green Bird" at the La Jolla Playhouse nor "Changes of Heart" at the Mark Taper Forum features a minute of improvisation--quite the opposite. These are intricately staged, carefully choreographed theatrical pieces, presented with a polished finish (though topical jokes about Republicans and O.J. Simpson's lawyers are added for effect in "The Green Bird").

Improvisation is almost always anathema to what we consider great theater today--that is, a complete world created by a director, a person whose vision permeates every detail of onstage life. "The Green Bird" and "Changes of Heart" appropriate the signposts of commedia--the masks, character names and personalities. But those signposts are far less central to the success of these productions than the fact that each one represents the personal vision of a brilliant and probably quite controlling director who uses the commedia form to give voice to what he or she needs to say.

In fact both Julie Taymor's version of "The Green Bird" and Stephen Wadsworth's "Changes of Heart" are adapted from plays that appeared in the commedia canon at the end of its long life, around the time that Italian playwright Carlo Goldini announced it demeaning to improvise in the theater and began substituting fully written scenarios instead of plot outlines for commedia players. The sparkling comedies Marivaux wrote for characters named Harlequin and Silvia in the 1720s and '30s were much closer to perfectly structured Restoration comedies than to the bawdy plays that actually spawned those characters. And by the time Gozzi got around to writing "The Green Bird" in 1765, commedia was 200 years old and taking its very last gasp of breath.

Taymor has long been obsessed with the eloquence of masks and puppets, and she has built an international career in theater and opera. She designs the life-size animals, swooping bird puppets and haunting masks of pain and befuddlement, greed or inscrutability that people her stages. Taymor thrives on nonliteral terms and stories. Gozzi, who loved onstage physical transformation and is best known for bringing fairy tales and fables into the commedia vocabulary, offers a banquet for her talents.

Gozzi tells the story of a pair of royal twins searching for their identity. Along the way they meet fantastical creatures, starting with the title character, an adorable chartreuse bird who protects the twins until he is turned into a handsome prince, in this case the bird-puppet's handler. The twins are also helped by Calmen, a huge stone head. Minus a body, Calmen swivels around the stage like an awkward carnival ride, and opens and closes his large sad eyes whenever he is fed up. Another statue, Pompea, has a haunting human eloquence because she is played by a human, an actress (Lee Lewis) sheathed in body makeup whose graceful poses impart a being encased in stone yearning to breathe free.

King Tartaglia (Derek Smith) wears an oversized soft face that is more expressive than the black cat-masks favored by commedia players. Tartaglia's personality is largely defined by that mask (and also by Smith's wonderful physical performance) as a still-with-it, swinging and neurotic king, a man who can weep over his lost queen in one moment and ogle a young lass in the next. Taymor's pieces-de-resistance are the three singing apples, gigantic slim ladies with apple heads who wear long apple-green gowns and whose heads split open so they can sing a song, while alongside them bobbing apples appear above notes on a staff on the stage.

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