I just saw something you don’t see every day: the first production of a new play.
I went to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) last weekend to see my niece in a play, Lovers & Players, written by Kathryn Walat, who is on the faculty and who is an established playwright. Besides being delighted with Sara, as I always am, with how she makes a role her very own, I was even more delighted being in the audience of a first production that was fresh and compelling and just plain fun. It was as if a whole new world was opening in front of me like an animated rose bud blooming before my very eyes.
Walat, I learned, had gotten a grant to study commedia dell’ arte in Italy over the summer and came back with this action-packed take on an old comedy form.
I have been interested in commedia and am always seeing modern versions of the old stock characters in much of the television I watch. Those commedia actors did much to popularized theatre in Europe and established certain conventions of theatre that are still true today: standard character types that are recognizable from play to play (or TV show to TV show), plots that people can relate to with narratives that seem to be going one way but resolve with a twist, and physical action to keep everyone on their toes. Oh, and those bawdy bits to keep things interesting to most of the regular folk who would show up to watch these plays.
But here’s the thing some theatre critics might ask: Why would Walat want to write about the past? The simple answer is she doesn’t. She places the narrative in sixteenth century Padua, but with situations and sensibilities firmly in our present. Kathryn Walat has written a play that combines theatre history with a clever nod to the present day. And she has written it for these young, impressive SCAD troupe of actors, who just begs that she bring a modern sensibility to an old comedy form. Discovering those anachronistic is part of the delicious fun. One character proudly announces to us that what we just learned about him is his “backstory.” Another character, an apothecary, is a walking drug store, someone you expect to see loitering on a corner in a run-down neighborhood. There is even a local mobster who sounds like the Godfather, a character that has become a theatrical type.
Even the old plot standby, the lost twins reunited, works even though they look nothing alike and one is even the wrong gender. Gender misidentified has taken on a new meaning in modern day, but one gender being mistaken for the other is nothing new to the theatre.
The characters who are the actors who make their living as a traveling commedia troupe, are well-drawn, which is not an easy task since the standard stock characters of commedia are – well, stock characters. As the dramaturg, Eboni-Jade Wooten and the director, Sharon Ott, wrote in the program notes, commedia tradition is “- the wonderful, sometimes messy, always inspiring and often beautiful collaborative art we call theater.”
Lovers & Players carries on that tradition with this new play, written for a troupe of players who are right for it, directed by someone who understands the play, the playwright’s intentions, and the skills and personalities of her actors. What a collaboration!