‘School for Sausage’ showcases Comedia dell’arte
ANN ARBOR,Mich.–Ellipsis Theatre’s “The School for Sausage” provides an entertaining education on the origins of professional theatre itself.
The show is done in the Commedia dell’arte style, which began in Italy in the 16th Century and became popular throughout Europe.
Hallmarks of the style are stock characters identifiable by their masks and costumes, and physical humor that can border bawdy. There is no set script. Rather, the players improvise on a scenario, weaving in social and political concerns of the community they’re entertaining.
Masquerade balls, opera, clowning, Shakespeare, Moliere, Marx Brothers, and Punch and Judy puppet shows all evolved from Commedia dell’arte plays, which were often performed on streets or the backs of wagons.
The scenario that Ellipsis’s creative forces–Scott Screws and Joanna Hastings–have provided their company in “The School for Sausage” comes directly from the Commedia dell’arte playbook.
A young woman and man with social standing are in love and yearn to be married, but some old men seek to thwart the union. Assistance from eccentric servants is enlisted to bring the lovers together, or keep them apart.
Premise for “The School for Sausage” is well suited to Ann Arbor, home to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
The Dottore (doctor), concerned that passions of the flesh hijack young from achieving their intellectual and spiritual potential, concocts a chastity potion, which leaves them temporarily tongue-tied. Pantalone (miser) — so money grubbing that he seeks to marry off his daughter to the old doctor because she has overspent at the market – bemoans the fact that young people are ignorant of business and finance. Babette, a beleaguered innkeeper who aspires to “write the Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” is aghast that youth lack life skills, like cooking and cleaning.
The Dottore, Pantalone, and Babette band together to open “The School for Sausage,” which they believe will teach young people things they really need to know.
Pantalone is far from altruistic. While teaching a lesson on contracts, he sneakily gets all students to sign low-interest student loans but, according to the fine print, the interest is calculated hourly. Pantalone seizes students’ assets as collateral. Their futures are mortgaged. Their prospects are grim.
In typical Commedia dell’arte fashion, this story ends happily, with the forgiveness of debt and the marriage of the young lovers, Isabella and Lelio, portrayed very well by Mariah Colby and Jahmeel Powers. (Their lovelorn scenes alone are worth the price of admission.)
The hands down star of the show is Forrest Hejkal as the simpleton servant Arlecchino, who always takes his seat literally. His is textbook slapstick humor. Heikal even wears a baton that elicits a loud crack when struck. Usually another character borrows the stick to thwack Arlecchio.
Justin Cohen is good as The Dottore, which his exaggerated Charlie Chaplin gait. Breon Canady also stands out as the zesty servant Columbina. Scott Screws as Pantalone and Joanna Hastings as Babette also shine.
The masks, created by the company itself, are wonderful with the exception of Hastings’, which didn’t seem to fit her just right. Improvisational skills of the cast were tested opening night when a leg broke off of the central wooden bench. Some actors continued to use the bench, exaggerating its tipsiness for laughs.
Perhaps the show’s biggest laughs erupted near the end when The Dottore devises a highly unusual paternity test, but I won’t say more and spoil the fun.
Both acts of the show ran a solid hour. With the intermission, it made for a long night, despite all the giggles. Dialogue in the first act could easily be condensed. “The School for Sausage” is not a perfect show (I don’t understand why the word sausage was used in the title, and neither did other members of the audience I talked to). But it is entertaining. And it does hold true to a centuries-old art form that continues to be influential today.