Love in the time of Commedia dell'Arte

Portland director helms students-centric School of Performing Arts production

Practice makes perfect. The cast and crew of “Scapin” proved it during their dress rehearsal Tuesday night. With days left before opening night on Friday, Nov. 7, there were only minor details left to tweak before running the show in front of an actual audience.

The entire show is highly energized and highly entertaining. Written in the classic Italian comedy style Commedia dell’Arte, the play follows the clever scheming of the cunning and crafty servant Scapino (Anthony Arnista) as he tries to undo the troubles in the love lives of two young men, Octavio (Craig Douglas) and Leandro (Joe Mitchell).

When Octavio and Leandro’s fathers, Signor Argante (Ryan Jackson) and Signor Geronte (Dustin Sleight), return home from a trip, they are more than upset to find their sons have fallen in love with two women they find unsuitable. To make matters worse, the women are penniless. Scapino formulates a plan involving lying, trickery and an inane story about kidnap and ransom to help the boys during their time of woe. With the help of some “unbelievable coincidences,” the day is saved and allis set right.

This year, the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts is graced with the presence and talent of guest director Julie Goell, of Portland, Maine. This is Goell’s first time working with the university’s theater department.

“I love it here,” she said. “The theater students here are extremely dedicated. They want it really bad, and they’re willing to work hard for it.”

When she came to UMaine to drop her son off for his first year, she spoke with theater and dance division chair Tom Mikotowicz. Being previous acquaintances, she told him she would love to do something at UMaine. Her position as director for the fall show “Scapin” was finalized last spring.

Auditions for “Scapin” were held in early September with rehearsals starting the next week. Choosing the right people to correspond with the cast of characters was a particularly grueling duty.

“We agonized over casting,” Goell said. “There’s a lot of talent, and we had so many different choices.” It’s clear Goell made the right descriptions.

“Each person is so suited to their character. They live in their character’s skin,” she said.

Written by French playwright Moliere in the 1660s, “Scapin” was later adapted by Mark O’Donnell and Bill Irwin. Adding their own modern elements and using the classical Italian names of the characters, the cast of 13 students has mastered not only the slapstick comedy of the script, but also the physical aspect.

Goell specializes in Commedia dell’Arte, and physical comedy is her forte, which is a huge part of this classic style of theater. Incorporating the physicality required for this comedic art form has been a lot of hard work for the actors, but they make it seem effortless on stage.

“We’ve trained basically every night,” she said. “We’d have at least a half-an-hour of each rehearsal set aside to work on it.”

“There was a lot of extra attention paid to our physical movements because they’re so stylized and specific,” said Arnista, who plays Scapino. “It was great to work with Julie because she really knew what she was talking about, and that helped us get the hang of the Commedia dell’Arte style.”

In addition to directing, Goell also arranged the music for this production.

“It’s been an enjoyable challenge,” she said. “I had to find the right songs for each character, and that’s a challenge because it has to sit just right and provide energy.”

Cast members are joined on stage by a band consisting of three student accompanists on guitar, percussion and bass, a violinist and a vocalist. Though band members stay mostly stationary in their spots on the right side of the stage, the actors still consider them as part of the show.

“They are characters on stage with us,” said Joe Mitchell, who plays the role of Leandro and also serves as assistant director. “It’s fun to interact with people providing our background music.”

Finding musicians to commit to rehearsal and show times was the biggest challenge for Goell. Guitarist Nick Mather, who joined the show late, was playing in only his second rehearsal on Tuesday night. Mather has quickly adapted to his bandmates and the style of music, and he and the rest of the band sounded incredibly polished.

Along with the slew of musical and acting talent, “Scapin” boasts a visually appealing set. Light and set designer Dan Bilodeau said that this production is specifically creative in that aspect. This is Bilodeau’s first production at the university, and he says it’s been wonderful so far.

“The facilities here are great,” he said, and it’s more of a “slowed-down pace for this show, so it’s great in that respect.”

He started formulating plans for the set design during the summer. After reading through the script and talking with the director and other designers, construction began at the start of the semester.

“It’s going to be great when the actors get on stage with the set and in costume. It’s very exciting,” Bilodeau said.

After taking the final bows on Tuesday night’s dress rehearsal, cast members quickly went to change out of costume and reconvened on stage to go over Goell’s notes and discuss issues that came up during the run-through.

Though the actors seemed tired after running the show in its entirety, they are excited for opening night. Craig Douglas, who plays Octavio, is feeling good about the upcoming performances and is anxious to have a real audience.

“I try not to think about the audience, but I thrive off of it,” Douglas said.

Before each performance, actors prepare with a number of exercises.

“We have a warm up with the whole cast where we stretch, do tongue twisters and focus our energy,” Arnista said. Each member has his or her own method of getting into character before going on stage. Arnista prefers to be alone after warming up with the entire crew.

“I try to separate myself from the cast and get into Scapin’s mindset. Once I get into that, the play just sort of happens and I have fun.”

By Casey Hill; originally published in The Maine Campus