Commedia dell’Arte celebration at NU

On Friday — Commedia dell’Arte Day — Northwestern University will join in a worldwide celebration of the 16th century theatre form with the official launch of an interactive website and a live Commedia performance by the Panini Players.

Developed by Northwestern University Library, the new site — Commedia dell'Arte: The Masks of Antonio Fava — allows fans of Italian culture, drama and the ancient theatre form to manipulate in three dimensions a set of five masks.

Created by Italian mask-making maestro Antonio Fava, the masks represent some of Commedia’s stock characters.

The Panini Players, Northwestern’s student Commedia troupe, will perform “Dinner with the Panini Players” at 6 p.m. in Jones Residential College, 1820 Sheridan Road, Evanston campus. Tickets are available to the general public for $5 and include a homemade Italian dinner.

“Friday’s Commedia dell’Arte celebration from Anarctica to Australia, Italy to Islamabad and California to Krakow is proof that the 16th century theatre style still flourishes today,” says Dan Zellner. A University Library digital media specialist, Zellner oversaw the website which is the library’s first website to incorporate 3D objects. He also is the trainer and advisor to the student Commedia troupe.

Commedia dell’Arte incorporates improvisation, a stock set of mask-wearing characters and strenuous physical arts to explore love, lust, fear and the eternal struggle of youth against old age, according to French and Italian department faculty member Thomas Simpson. Simpson is translator of Fava’s “The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell’Arte,” published by Northwestern University Press. He teaches in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Commedia dell’Arte was the first expression of professional theatre as we know it today. And it shocked European audiences by using women actors for the first time. “Many actors played a single mask their entire career,” says Zellner. “Always perfecting their characters, they formed groups that, in today’s ‘Second City’ comedy style, created shows on a suggestion or the barest outline of a story.”

The stock characters represented by Northwestern’s masks include the long-winded professor (Dottore), the greedy and lecherous old man (Pantalone), the blowhard par excellence (Bravazzo) and the comic servants, including the famous mask of Pulcinella.

Typically the plays are about young lovers who, with or despite the assistance of their servants, overcome the objections of their old fathers and marry,” says Zellner. The lovers do not wear the leather masks donned by the other characters.

The Feb. 25 dinner and performance by the Panini Players will include five Fava masks. Not far from campus, Evanston’s Piccolo Theatre will perform “The Servant of Two Masters,” a Commedia dell’Arte classic, from Feb. 25 through April 9. It, too, will feature masks by Fava.

The five mask set now at Northwestern University Library and made virtually available on the new website were purchased through a generous gift from the estate of Dorothy Jean Adams.

The masks are available to members of the Northwestern community for research and performance purposes. The website includes photos and 3D models that will allow a wider public to view and appreciate the masks.

Commedia dell’Arte is celebrated on Feb. 25 because on that date in 1545 a Commedia dell’Arte troupe in Padua became the world’s first incorporated theatre company, and Western professional theatre was born.

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