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Studying Stock Options

Young Cast Creates a Project With Old World Roots

November 21, 1996|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ditsy Chrissy, sassy Janet and oversexed Jack--the wacky roomies in the old "Three's Company" TV sitcom--have a lineage far more distinguished than you may know. Along with countless other comic characters, their pedigrees can be traced back 400 years to the Italian Renaissance, when roving bands of actors plied their trade on makeshift stages and in dusty piazzas.

Commedia dell'arte was a form of street theater popularized in Italy in the late 1500s and prevalent throughout Europe until the late 1700s. Traveling troupes used their own simple scenarios and stock characters--the ingenue, the sharp-tongued maiden, the buffoon--to create improvisational theater for the common folk. Although commedia pieces are seen rarely today, the characters have lived on, influencing wits from Moliere to the Marx Brothers.

This weekend their influence can be seen at the hands of the Orange County High School of the Arts Theatre Experiment. The troupe's artistic director, William Lett, and 12 OCHSA actors will introduce audiences to our comic forefathers through "Della Scena de' Soggetti Comici," a commedia dell'arte piece they developed from a scenario (circa 1650) by Basilio Locatelli. The show, recommended for junior-high-and-older audiences because of sexual innuendo, opened Wednesday and continues through Sunday at OCHSA's Black Box Theatre at Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos.

"Virtually every commedia troupe that performed used the same stock characters," explained Lett, an instructor in the Los Alamitos magnet school's musical theater department. "Each character had standard qualities and a distinct style of costume and mask that was passed down from troupe to troupe: The soubrette was always the sassy tart, for example, and the Harlequin was the mischief maker. The look may have changed, but you still see these same stock characters all over TV."

Performing commedia is "a way to show kids that this kind of theater is universal; it can be anything, anywhere," he added.

Now in its 10th year, OCHSA is one of four schools in the county offering intensive arts curriculum. The Huntington Beach school district runs the Academy for the Performing Arts (formerly the School for the Performing Arts) at Huntington Beach High School, and this fall Dana Hills High School opened its South Orange County School for the Arts and the Fullerton school district debuted the Fullerton Academy of the Arts at Fullerton Union High School.

All of the schools have performing arts seasons; in fact, all four have shows this weekend: Fullerton stages "Our Town" and Dana Hills presents "The Alcestiad," both by Thornton Wilder, while Huntington Beach is doing Moliere's "A Flea in Her Ear."

But OCHSA's program is the largest of the four, attracting hundreds of auditioners from Southern California and outside the state each year, said David Green, director of the school's 150-student musical theater department.

To acquaint his students with commedia and its link to modern comedy, Lett showed them clips from "Three's Company" and "I Love Lucy," and Three Stooges and Pink Panther movies. He also screened clips from "Scaramouche," a 1952 commedia-style film.

He said he talked at length with members of the San Francisco Mime Company and actors with a commedia school in Blue Lake, Calif., and spent hours searching libraries and computer files. As rehearsals began, he gave each actor several pages of info and drawings describing his or her character. The students then acquainted themselves with the style's metaphorical language, and used Locatelli's brief scenario--found by Lett in a research book--to create the script for "Della Scena de' Soggetti Comici" (A Scene of Subject Comedy).

"The scenario gives you only the simplest information," explained Lett. "It's basically just character one meets character two and discusses the dowry for character one's daughter." The company fleshed that out into a 90-minute play within a play in which the masked characters--through physical comedy, shameless punning and double entendres, with a few sly references to modern pop culture thrown in--tell a tale of love affairs gone awry.

"Once the kids were comfortable [with the style] and knew the characters they were playing, it was up to them to start taking the risks."

Risk-taking in this particular type of theater also includes dealing with the risque subject matter of the era in a way that is appropriate to the players' and viewers' maturity.

"Because sex was something everybody had in common, there was a lot of sexual humor in these shows," he explained. "Here, we're working with modern teenagers with hormones, so we had to be careful to maintain the innuendo and the puns without going for the real bawdy humor."

Lett, who also made all the show's costumes and masks, said he tried to keep the show's look relatively modest. Although his soubrette wears a plunging neckline, none of the characters wear a codpiece, a fashion accesory of the period sometimes worn over one's clothes in the genital region.

"There's a fine line you have to walk" to stay true to the period without being offensive to modern audiences, Lett admitted, "but I think we stayed on it. It's just a funny, frolic romp."

* What: "Della Scena de' Soggetti Comici," a commedia dell'arte performance by the Orange County High School of the Arts Theatre Experiment.

* When: 7:30 p.m. today and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

* Where: OCHSA Black Box Theatre at Oak Middle School, 10821 Oak Ave., Los Alamitos.

* Whereabouts: From the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway, exit at Katella Avenue; go east. Turn left onto Oak Avenue.

* Wherewithal: $6.

* Where to call: (310) 596-4304.

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