It’s sometimes easy to forget that not all classical plays come out of England. But thanks to visiting Dell’Arte International director Joan Schirle “The Ingenious Chambermaid” brings some good old-fashioned Italian comedy to CU after 50 years in hiding.
Poking fun at foundations for marriage, the play spins the light-hearted tale of Argentina, a persuasive servant-woman who aims to marry her hot-tempered, yet lovable master. Before she can claim her prize, however, she must solve the problem of his two polar-opposite daughters, who must be married first, in traditional Italian culture.
Through child-like tactics and outrageous physical comedy, Argentina cunningly undertakes the impossible mission of uniting the least compatible lovers imaginable.
The play, translated from Italian by the founders of Dell’Arte International, was originally staged 50 years ago for the last time in the United States – until now.
Joan Dieter, a 21-year-old senior theater major, plays the strong female lead of Argentina with charm, though she said she was challenged by the fast-paced nature of the play.
“I think pushing the show along was one of the hardest things for me,” Dieter said. “It was a lot of work because [Argentina] does a lot through the entire show and finding that kind of stamina to get through it and to keep motivated was difficult. But it was fun to get there and find it.”
Fortunately Schirle, first time director at CU, provided her seasoned prowess to guide student actors through this classic Italian work. The Roe Green Foundation brought Schirle to CU as a visiting artist from Dell’Arte International, a renowned theater school in California of which she is the director.
While also teaching a course on mask work for theater students, Schirle chose to stage “The Ingenious Chambermaid.” Dieter said she brought a missing element of Italian theater to campus.
“[Schirle’s] directing style is just super fun,” Dieter said. “She never will tell you ‘No you can’t do it’ she’ll tell you ‘Try it,’ and if it doesn’t work, well then we won’t do it. Her directing style was very much a playful atmosphere, which I think is so good for theater; that’s what it should be.”
Written by playwright Carlo Goldoni in 1754, “The Ingenious Chambermaid” represents a modernization of commedia dell’arte, an extremely presentational style of 16th century Italian theater. Schirle worked with the actors to teach this distinctive style, which requires large spectacle and heavy physical expression.
“This style was very challenging for the actors; just the concept that you need to move your feet every time you change your thought,” Schirle said. “You might not have even noticed it; if it’s done well you don’t notice it, you just notice that the whole thing seems to have a great life and that you move along like that.”
Adding to the presentational quality of the show, actors speak directly out into the audience to actively rope viewers into the action.
“I would say the audience is its own character,” Dieter said. “They’re in the play, they’re part of the play. Joan always told us to talk to the audience. She would refer to them like, ‘They’re you’re best friend! They’re on your side! Talk to them!’”
Schirle said breaking the fourth wall is something that can easily be done in a comedic show.
“In commedia, old and new, there are no private moments,” she said. “Everything a character says is either to their partner or to the audience. Even the house lights were on a quarter of the way so the actors aren’t looking into a black pit.”
On some nights, CU faculty members Tammy Meneghini and Chip Persons perform roles in the show normally portrayed by student actors. This double-casting allowed students to work alongside their professors, adding a dimension to the learning experience.
“I think it has worked out well for everybody,” Schirle said. “The students have gotten a chance to really shine and the faculty have gotten a chance to do something they probably wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to do.”
Despite laughter at inept characters and events that seem to exist for the sake of comedic timing, Schirle makes the point that there are significant themes with which the audience can leave the theater.
“I love the ‘I am what I am,’” Schirle said. “It’s a constant theme that all of these wildly eccentric people seem to at some point say, I am what I am and I don’t want to change. The glory of Argentina’s journey is that she gets them to move a little bit. I think that’s a good message for the world right now.”
“The Ingenious Chambermaid” is showing at The University Theater at CU from Oct. 20 through 24. Tickets are $12 for students and can be purchased here.
Learn more about Joan Schirle and Dell’Arte International here.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Stephanie Riesco at Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.