slice of life

‘King Stag’ makes 16th century Italian theater hilarious

Courtesy of Jordan Penlava

Silly moments like these capture the essence of the comedia del'arte genre.

With only ten minutes to go before curtain up, Sarah Herman is still not in her costume. The warning is called and she throws it on, but not without stuffing a few ice packs in with her — she doesn’t want to overheat.

Minutes later she walks onto the stage, clad in the costume of an old man, she is the Pantaloon in Syracuse University Department of Drama’s production of “King Stag.”

“King Stag” opened Friday night at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex. The traditional, Italian style of theater had the full audience giggling, chuckling and howling with laughter. The show is a comedy of errors, with mix ups of the heart, and of bodies.

It tells the story of a king who is looking for a wife and interviews three candidates. He chooses Angela which upsets Tartaglia who is in love with her, and whose daughter was another candidate. Through a spell, the king ends up in he body of a stag, Tartaglia in the king’s body, then the king switches to an old man, and on it goes.

Comedia Dell’Arte is not a style of theater often shown, the characters are larger than life, with an almost cartoonish sense to them. The old man walked hunched over at an 90 degrees angle, Angela, the ballerina, walked on her tip toes, pirouetting when the moment called for it, and her father, played by Herman, wore a purple polka dot-clad fat suit.

Alex Cortinas, a freshman musical theater major, said the costumes were amazing and added to the classically different elements of the play.

All of the characters were extravagant, with choreographed, dance-style fight scenes. Four musicians sat on the side of the stage for the entire show, in full costume, providing the mood music for the action on stage.

Many of the characters would conduct the musicians, requesting a dramatic tune, or fun ditty for their entrance, adding to the onslaught of comedy on stage. Some characters only had a short moment on stage but still drew a lot of attention.

At one point, a bear wanders across the stage in a large mask, unaware that it is being hunted by the human characters. Although it appeared only for about a minute onstage, there was still a large crowd of fans waiting at the stage door chanting, “Bear! Bear! Bear!” when the actor emerged.

Herman’s character of Pantaloon drew perhaps the most laughs. The old man speaks with a nasal voice and walks with his feet turned out. Like nearly half of the characters on stage, he wears an elaborate mask.

When Herman saw who she was cast as, she thought it was a mistake — not understanding why she would be playing an old man. Upon further research however, she found out that the role is often given to small, slender girls so the costume can be larger and detailed.

The Pantaloon costume only takes Herman ten minutes to throw on, but it is heavy and thick enough that she overheated during tech week. Now she performs with ice packs in the costume beside her, a bonus perhaps, as her character walks bent over a cane, leading to a lot of back pain for Herman.

Another character that drew a lot of chuckles from the audience was the evil Tartaglia. He spoke with a slight stammer through his long, droopy mustache. Josh Kraing, a freshman musical theater major, said Tartaglia was his favorite character. He added that the style of theater was an interesting experience that many people should enjoy.

“I think it’s important for people to see that there are so many different kinds of theater, so if you don’t like one piece of Shakespeare, there are so many different things you can see,” Kraing said. “Everyone can find something to like in theater.”

The show was a lot of fun to rehearse, Herman said. She recalled one day when the director was working with the musicians — a lot of their music was improvised. He asked them to play “Swan Lake,” with no practice, but the group of four struck up the classic “Swan Lake” tune with no problems.

Herman agreed that more people should experience the atypical theater performance.

“New things are always fun, even if you aren’t a theater person and your second cousin twice removed just happens to be in a Comedia show,” Herman said. “I think it’s always good to immerse yourself in things that you wouldn’t typically want to do.”

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