Improv, Italian style

Commedia dell'arte comes to WUSTL

Commedia dell’arte was among the most popular entertainments of 16th- and 17th-century Italy and France, yet its slapstick humor, quirky costumes and use of improvisation have continued to influence performers from Vaudeville and Cirque du Soleil to television’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

This month, the Kingsbury Ensemble and Project Improv St. Louis will join forces to present a new translation of “The Old Man’s Folly,” a classic commedia dell’arte work, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, in Umrath Hall.

The piece consists of a series of semi-improvised scenes and features music — performed on historically accurate instruments — by Adriano Banchieri (1568-1634), a Benedictine monk from Bologna and an associate of Monteverdi.

The Kingsbury Ensemble, St. Louis’ premiere early-music group, is led by harpsichordist Maryse Carlin, instructor in the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences.

After attending a performance of “The Old Man’s Folly” in Paris last year, Carlin arranged for a new translation of the play by Julia Masetti, an adjunct faculty member in Webster University’s Department of International Languages & Cultures.

She also enlisted the talents of Chris Hartman, a graduate student in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences as well as the director of Project Improv St. Louis.

Hartman — who previously studied with an artistic director of Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe — said “The Old Man’s Folly” emphasizes such classic commedia ingredients as adultery, jealousy, old age, lechery and young love.

Pantalone, a titular old man, is, according to Hartman “a capitalist at heart, probably close to retirement, very interested in hoarding his money and very interested in his daughter marrying someone of wealth.

“But he’s also a lech and is looking for a woman half his age,” Hartman said.

The cast — which includes more than a dozen actors, singers and musicians — also features Robert Henke, Ph.D., chair of the PAD as well as an established commedia scholar, in the role of Doctor Gratiano, a philosopher of high wisdom and deep nonsense.

Carlin directs the late Renaissance and early Baroque music that introduces and enhances each improv set.

These include several works by Banchieri as well as pieces by Biagio Marini (1594-1663), a composer and violinist in the courts and cathedrals of Venice and Padua; and by Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi of Mantua, who was known for his vocal dance-songs.

“Not many people are doing commedia these days,” Hartman said of what’s called long-form improvisation.

“I think it’s the same reason that we see a lot of the short-form improv these days, such as ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway?’ Actors are typically scared to sustain improv for more than five minutes,” he said.

Of course, Hartman and his crew have no such fear; “The Old Man’s Folly” is more than an hour long.

“We know what the story is, but there are no set lines,” Hartman said. “We know the action, but we don’t know the script. Anything can happen.”

Tickets — $15 to the public; $10 for seniors and $5 for students — are available through the Edison Theatre box office (935-6543) and at the door.

For more information, call 862-2675 or visit