John Morogiello’s new “based-on-a true-story” play Comedy of Venice, having its debut performance at Gaithersburg’s Best Medicine Rep, centers on a feud between two 18th-century Venetian playwrights.
Both of them – Carlo Gozzi and Carlo Goldoni – are well-known figures. Some of their works are still performed, such as Gozzi’s The Love of Three Oranges (best known today in an opera version by Prokofiev) and Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters.
Goldoni (Morogiello) was an innovator, disrupting the commedia dell’arte tradition that had dominated Italian theater for a couple of hundred years. Commedia used stylized, stock characters, generally masked, improvising off a plotline while incorporating standardized comic routines. (The form is with us still, DC’s Faction of Fools company being an excellent practitioner.) Goldoni, an admirer of Molière, introduced a degree of realism, dispensing with masks and adding tighter scripting, pushing his plays in the direction of comedies of manners with some satirical bite.
Gozzi (Yury Lomakin) pushed back. Wishing to revive rather than reform commedia, Gozzi used traditional forms in emphatically unrealistic “fairytale” plays that also attacked his theatrical opponents. Gozzi, as portrayed in Comedy of Venice, was the picture both of arrogance and the insecurity of a lesser noble with a problematic financial situation. Lomakin, it should be said, does arrogance really well, his Gozzi being someone who carries his dignity as though afraid of breaking it.
Morogiello plays the middle-class Goldoni as a much more relaxed, genial figure, genuinely taken aback by Gozzi’s enmity, insisting that his plays support moral virtue. As Gozzi’s machinations to drive Goldoni’s work from Venice’s theaters succeed, Goldoni’s desperation increases, with both serious and comic consequences.
While the battle between the two playwrights was intensely personal and did concern theatrical style, it was more than that. Class conflict also had a good deal to do with it. Goldoni, while not overtly challenging the social order, was open to portraying middle- and lower-class characters as intelligent and virtuous, while showing the foibles of their betters.
Gozzi took offense at these unmasked characters, seeing in them an implicit challenge to the authority of the church and the aristocracy that he was determined to maintain. Interestingly, Morogiello’s script shows the conservative Gozzi as something of an Italian nationalist (Italy did not become a unified nation-state until the late 19th century), while Goldoni remained attached to the Venetian city-state and its distinct language.
Around the two central characters, played realistically for the most part, swirl four others, drawn from the commedia tradition. Pantalone (Terence Heffernan), a miser wishing to marry off his daughter Isabella (Claire Derriennic) to some rich man or other. Heffernan adds a dash of New York to someone who is a close cousin to Molière’s foolish old man characters. Isabella is the most level-headed and sensible of the lot, Derriennic emphasizing her delight in pointing out and circumventing the nonsense of the others.
Tartaglia (Paul Reisman), despite a comically exaggerated stutter and a seeming shortage of brain cells, is a prosperous lawyer. In his hapless efforts to ensnare Isabella, he is constantly outwitted by both Isabella herself and Truffaldino (Elizabeth Darby), a clever, if ethically challenged, servant, enduring more than a few humiliations and pratfalls along the way. Between them, Tartaglia and Truffaldino provide much of the play’s comic momentum.
Morogiello’s script contains a variety of elements, including the quite serious rivalry between the two playwrights, the comedic interactions of the commedia characters with the playwrights and each other, Gozzi’s one-man enactment of his concept for The Love of Three Oranges, and an extended, very funny, farce scene in the second act. Director Stan Levin weaves the elements together in a satisfying way, keeping the pace steady and brisk through the variations in tone of the play’s scenes.
Ali Mark’s set design is simplicity itself, with four fabric-draped flats (one of which opens to a window for the farce scene) and a few tables and chairs. The highlight of Morogiello’s lighting design is in the farce scene, in which lights go to pale blue and back to full in synchronization with candles that are extinguished and lit. Elizabeth Kemmerer’s costumes follow commedia traditions for Tartaglia, Truffaldino, Isabella, and Pantalone (that is, red and black for Pantalone), while the two playwrights are in period-appropriate outfits, befitting their social class.
Illuminating an interesting chapter in theater history, Comedy of Venice offers a well-acted, highly amusing window into the ways that performance traditions evolve and how they reflect the political and social tensions of their times. Best Medicine Rep’s performance is simultaneously entertaining and instructive.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Comedy of Venice plays through February 23, 2020, at Best Medicine Rep on the upper level of Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, in Gaithersburg MD, between the Macy’s and Sears spaces. The mall’s green entrance is closest to the theater’s location. For tickets, you may go online.