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“Isabella Unmasked”: the Italian Commedia dell’Arte Is Coming to New York

An 80-minute long play by only one actress, Chiara Durazzini, from Boston-based theater group Pazzi Lazzi

"Isabella Unmasked".

The play will explore the ins and outs of this theatric style through the lens of one actress, Isabella Andreini. It will be performed, free and open to the public, on Wednesday, November 28th, at 8:00 PM at the Dorothy Young Center for Performing Arts at Drew University, NJ; and Thursday, November 29th, at 6:30 PM at the NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò

A new play is coming to New York from Boston-based theater group Pazzi Lazzi. The play is called Isabella Unmasked, an 80-minute long foray into the practice of Commedia dell’Arte by only one actress, Chiara Durazzini, who will play ten different characters, and one musician, Renaissance instrumentalist Dan Meyers, who will play ten different instruments. Together, they will explore the ins and outs of this theatric style through the lens of one actress, Isabella Andreini, from the 16th century. She was the chief female figure of Commedia dell’Arte, a successful poet, actor, mother, and wife who has been commemorated since her death as one of the stock characters in this branch of theater.

Commedia dell’Arte is a type of theater that originated in Italy in the 16th century, intended to be performed by professional actors out on the streets or in piazze. It works with a set of archetypal stock characters, such as the witty servant, the meddling father, and star-crossed lovers, around which the plot revolves. Commedia dell’Arte saw women on the stage for the first time in theater history.

The Pazzi Lazzi Troupe is specialized in Commedia dell’Arte, and, in addition to performing, hosts workshops, lectures, and discussions around the theme. Isabella Unmasked is an attempt by the troupe, and especially Durazzini, its co-founder and artistic director, to direct their work towards an exploration of the role of women in the arts. Durazzini has even helped organize a festival on this subject in her current hometown, Newton, Massachusetts. A discussion of women’s treatment in the cultural industries is topical, whereas Commedia dell’Arte is a centuries-old art – together, they make for an interesting perspective.

The play will be performed, free and open to the public, on Wednesday, November 28th, at 8:00 PM at the Dorothy Young Center for Performing Arts at Drew University, NJ; and Thursday, November 29th, at 6:30 PM at the NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. For more information on the play and the story behind it, please consult the description on the event page. To see a feature on Durazzini and the Pazzi Lazzi on Italian television, visit this site.

Below is an interview with Chiara Durazzini, creator and star of the play, regarding the structure of the piece, her role within it, Commedia dell’Arte, and why it matters.

What motivated you to read Isabella Andreini’s biography, and what made you turn your interest for her into a play?
“A few years ago, I was preparing my lecture about Commedia dell’Arte. In the lecture I wanted to mention that with Italian Commedia in the mid-1500s we see women on stage for the first time, so I decided to make a slide with some information about Isabella Andreini, the most famous example of this phenomenon. I realized that the little information we have about her was nonetheless very intriguing and a perfect example of a woman who dedicated her life to art, in spite of having a large family. I found myself relating to her: I have a family and I work in the arts”.

I understand there is very little information available about Andreini’s life. What did you discover in the biography about this character that inspired you?
“The inspiration was mainly due to the coincidence that Andreini died at the same age I was at the time! I was struck by this coincidence and took it as a “sign””.

When was Isabella Unmasked completed?
“Well, being an original show, it is never “complete,” meaning that each time we rehearse it and perform it, the show evolves and it improves. The premiere was in June 2017 at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, but so many details have changed since then. By this I mean that each new time the play is performed, I improvise with the lines and the jokes and then keep what sticks, in my own “personal script,” as it were. The director, Marco Zanelli, also helps improve my performance each time through his notes. Though the changes are small and perhaps imperceptible, the play becomes better and more complete each time it is performed because of how we allow for a certain flexibility”.

How is it, for you, to have to carry the weight of an 80-minute play almost solely on your shoulders? Do you feel more pressure, do you miss the presence of others, or do you feel fine on your own?
“Yes, yes and yes! However, I had arrived at a point in my theater career where I felt the need to have a more personal show, to challenge myself and also to be more independent – logistically it is easier to tour with two performers instead of five as Pazzi Lazzi had done in the past. It is like giving birth: it is hard and tiring, but at the end it is so worth it!”.

How would you define the role of the musician in this piece?
“I consider myself very lucky that the multi-instrumentalist Dan Meyers accepted the challenge to have such an important role in the show with his multifaceted talent, he is always on stage with me, he is the narrator and often he silently comments on my actions, and of course he is capable to seamlessly go from one instrument to the next, from recorders, to harp, to percussion and “scacciapensieri” (Jew’s harp)!”.

And the role of the music?
“The show is very physical, so the music supports a lot of the actions and movement. Moreover, I play many characters that are also defined by an instrument and a musical theme. So music helps define the characters better, and each instrument is historically accurate with its character, for example Isabella is a “primadonna innamorata” and in Commedia her archetype is a noble one, therefore Dan chose an instrument that only nobility played in those times, the “flauto traverso”; Arlecchino, on the other hand, is defined by a Canario played on a regular recorder which was played by the lower class, as he is the servant”.

What is the role of physical movement in the play?
“As each character I play used to have a well-defined, exaggerated, and grotesque physicality (let’s remember that Commedia begins in the Italian streets and squares, so the stock characters needed to be seen from far way), I also change physicality when I switch character. Furthermore, I mix some dancing as a stylized dramatization of Isabella’s madness”.

How do you make use of the idea of “theater in the theater” in this work?
“The show works on three different levels of “theater in the theater”: I, Chiara, play Isabella Andreini the Renaissance actress who plays Isabella the fictional character of her most famous show “La Pazzia di Isabella”. Fun fact: the most popular name of the stock character of the Innamorata or Noblewoman, Isabella, was given by Andreini herself”.

How do you interpret the metaphor/symbol of the mask?
“My leather masks are typical Commedia stock characters’ masks which I buy from a workshop in Venice: the classical Arlecchino, Pantalone, Brighella and so on. However, the nobles had no masks at the time, and I maintained this tradition, my face is their mask. With the exception of Isabella who has a golden neutral mask (made by a Florentine artist). The neutrality obscures her true nature and emotions, hence also incorporating the Pirandellian concepts of perception: this device leaves Isabella, the character, devoid of any emotion, thereby allowing, perhaps forcing, each individual audience member to see and interpret her in a very unique manner”.

What do you feel is the value or use of Commedia dell’Arte to us today, both in theater and society more generally?
“The characters of Commedia dell’Arte are very ancient, some of them even go back to the Latin and Greek comedy, they are archetypes that never die, and that we can still see today and meet them in our everyday life. It’s enough to take a careful look at politics (all over the world) to find some of these personalities!”.

Please tell me what led you to specialize and pursue the Commedia dell’Arte style.
“I attended the DAMS, the program for the arts, music, and performance, at the University of Bologna and during our drama classes we had numerous opportunities to attend master classes with theater professionals of any kind. The University invited Claudia Contin from the Arlecchino Errante company in Pordenone, to teach us Commedia, as we were about to put on Moliere’s play “Le Furberie di Scapino”. I was love-struck! I felt that that was something I wouldn’t want to give up, I felt comfortable in playing grotesque, funny, over-exaggerated characters, and with my background in dance and physical theatre, it was a perfect match”.

Are there many other troupes of this kind, specializing specifically in Commedia dell’Arte?
“Interestingly, Commedia is still a beloved theater art: it is taught in drama classes and it is still performed all over the world, by professional or amateur actors, in many different styles: both modern and more historically accurate. In short, it is a “koine’,” a common language”.

Is pedagogy a way you would describe your theater style? And why?
“It is when you think that we can always learn from characters that have many personal qualities, but definitely more flaws! You can see yourself in some of them, or see your friend or partner, understanding that many psychological traits are common in so many people around us. With our Commedia workshops and shows we demonstrate how these psychological characteristics are reflected in the physical ones, and vice versa, helping the audience (and we ourselves in real life) to understand the people around us better”.

What, generally, do you think that the Italian theater tradition can contribute to the American theater one?
“It was pleasantly surprising to me to see that in all American Theatre Departments, Commedia dell’Arte is part of the curriculum, and I have seen numerous theater shows using Commedia masks or characters. Needless to say, Americans love Shakespeare so they need to learn about Commedia, which had a great influence on the British playwright!”.

In your interview on Rai you speak about the role of older comedic archetypes in modern comedy (e.g. sitcoms), an interesting point. Could you expand on it?
“You go see a Cirque Du Soleil show and in their comedy sketches there are often some references to Commedia dell’Arte or to its “lazzi”; you turn on your TV and you watch one of these sitcoms like “Modern Family” and the relationships between the characters take a lot after Commedia’s ones (the older husband with the beautiful younger wife was present in many of Commedia’s scenarios). Or you decide to have a family night with DVDs of The Three Stooges and you realize you are watching three Zannis, same for Laurel and Hardy where you have the classical Commedia dell’Arte device of the smart servant and the dumb one. Modern comedy draws a lot from the archetypal forms, characters, and relationships introduced by Commedia dell’Arte”.

What can comedy achieve that tragedy cannot?
“I believe that both achieve a lot, both have cathartic power, both make you see that imagination is often a reflection of reality, that the reality of each of us is a constellation of laughter and of tears, that you live well if you have the right balance of both. But laughter gives you some good endorphins and who says no to that!”.

How would you define the state of women in the arts today?
“The first very annoying thing is this: they are underpaid even, and especially, in the arts! And often if you are a woman in the arts, people assume that you do it as a hobby and not as a career. Times are changing and I can see that in the last couple of years people, including people in the business, are paying more attention to female artists, but at times it is frustrating because you feel you must be a “squeakier wheel” in order to be heard”.

What can we learn from Andreini today?
“Isabella Andreini, five hundred years ago, tried to achieve something we are still fighting for, though on a much lesser scale, today: that a woman can be a professional artist. She gained fame as an actress and as a writer, which in those days was very rare. It is inspirational to see this today, that in those times women, and artists in general, had the same desire of recognition, the same desire to share the art with as many audiences as possible. She made a living touring the wealthiest courts of Europe with her theatre company, and for patrons it was an honor to have her as a guest to show off to the world with the high power of art. This should serve as an example that even today governments must keep their funding for the arts accessible”.

Finally, what are your future plans for Isabella Unmasked and the group Pazzi Lazzi?
“Naturally, we would love to make the show available to as many people as possible, and we believe that it would be greatly appreciated in many countries, both in English and in Italian. It will debut in Italian in Boston this coming May and I am very excited to perform it in my native language. Pazzi Lazzi has also other projects underway, while we continue to enjoy performing for schools in the Boston area thanks to the Italian General Consulate of Boston”.

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