Monday, January 25, 2016

i Gelosi

The talented actress Vittoria (Sarah Zaragoza-Smith) keeps a tight rein
on her patron, the Duke of Mantua (Garrison Koebere), right,
and her lovelorn ex-boyfriend Orazio (Cassidy Smith), left,
in "I Gelosi," which kicks off the Acme Theatre Company's
36th season on Friday, Jan. 22. Courtesy photo

 It is generally believed that I Gelosi (translated as “the jealous ones”) was one of the earliest Italian acting troupes. It was formed in Milan, Italy, in 1569, and performed throughout Europe. Some say the group was the inspiration for today’s slapstick comedy. They performed commedia dell’arte, noted for its quick pace and clever, dark humor.

The 2008 play “I Gelosi,” written by playwright David Bridel, is loosely based on the original I Gelosi and is now being presented by Acme Theatre Company at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, under the direction of Acme alum Hope Raymond.

“These were the ‘rock stars’ of their time, creating theater loved by all classes of people,” Raymond writes in her program notes. In fact, I Gelosi was the first troupe to be patronized by nobility and even performed for the king of France.

The play begins in a graveyard — a clever device to introduce the audience to the characters by name, as they all arise from their prominently displayed engraved headstones.

The group’s leader, Francesco (AndrĂ©s de Loera Brust) gives an introduction to the play before the actual play begins. He stood head-and-shoulder above the others in the cast, not only because of his height, but because of his command of the stage, and his unfailing projection, which made every word he spoke easy to understand.

My consistent complaint about Acme is the failure of many of its actors to project, especially in a venue as large as the Veterans’ Memorial Theater. This time I sat close to the stage and could hear almost everyone well, though there were a couple whose lines never made it over the apron.

Francesco and his two friends Giulio Pasquati (Ari Wilk) and Simone di Bologna (Benton Harshaw), are penniless performers, squabbling over which one must play the female part. In an unconventional move in an era when women were not permitted on stage, Francesco decides to hire Isabella Andreini (Avery Burstein), whom he marries — not for love, but more for convenience.

Isabella is not only an actress but a writer and if her performing on stage was scandalous, reading her works from the stage was even more so, though little is made of that fact in the plot of this show.

Though one of the newest, youngest members of Acme, at age 15, ninth-grader Burstein gave an experienced performance and held her own against the more seasoned actors.

The Orazio Padovano (Cassidy Smith), star-struck nephew of the Duke of Mantua (Garrison Koeberer), also comes a groupie and introduces Vittoria Piisimi (Sarah Zaragoza-Smith) into the company. The competition between Isabella and Vittoria forms much of the conflict in the story

More conflict arises after Francesco has an affair with the libidinous Sylvia (Julia Smart Truco), mistress of the Duke.

But thanks to the Duke’s reviews, I Gelosi are invited to perform in the court of Charles IX, King of France (Rocket Drew). With his thin build and oversized crown, Drew looks like he could have walked out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

Charles is the son of Catherine de Medici (Chaitrika Budamagunta) and I fear that her projection was nonexistent and I missed just about all of her lines.

Riding a wave of popularity, Francesco makes a terrible mistake, thinking that he could use the stage as a platform to express his anger with Pope Gregory and the aristocracy, with the audience’s blessing (kind of like saying “I’m so popular I could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and the people would still love me.”)  It backfires, however, and I Gelosi is driven from the court and find themselves penniless, right back where they started.

Undaunted, Francesco, Giulio and Simone decide to start all over again.

In real life, Isabella died in childbirth in 1604. Francesco was so overwrought that he disbanded the troupe and retired from the stage. The stock commedia dell’arte character Isabella is named in her honor.

In presenting this look at “I Gelosi,” Acme has done honor to the forerunner of much of what the young acting company has become famous for. And once again, dedicated Acme alum Dan Renkin deserves much credit for the sword-fighting skills of the actors.

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