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Celebrating a 16th-Century Theatre Form

Commedia dell’Arte is subject of 3D website and performance

February 21, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
Panini Players
The Panini Players, Northwestern's own student Commedia dell'Arte theatre troupe, performs on Commedia dell'Arte Day, celebrated from Antartica to Australia, Russia to Rome and California to Krakow.
EVANSTON, Ill. --- On Friday (Feb. 25) -- 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 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 Commedia maestro Antonio Fava, the masks represent stock characters of the ancient theatre style.

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 new website which is the library’s first to incorporate 3D objects. Zellner 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, 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.

“Commedia dell’Arte is celebrated on Feb. 25 because it was on that date in 1545 that a Commedia dell’Arte troupe in Padua became the world’s first incorporated theatre company, and Western professional theatre was born,” says Zellner. It also was the first European theatre form to use women actors.

“Many actors played a single mask their entire career,” Zellner adds. “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 the masks on the website include the long-winded, know-it-all professor (Dottore), the greedy, 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 their fathers’ objections 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 make use of 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 masks 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. They are available to members of the Northwestern community for research and performance purposes. Photos and 3D models on the website will allow a wider public to view and enjoy the masks.

For more information about the masks, website or the Panini Players, contact Dan Zellner at d-zellner@northwestern.edu or (847) 467-1399.

Topics: University News, Campus Life