Collections: Behind the Mask

The typical commedia dell’arte storyline is one of the oldest in the books — two young lovers try to marry despite their fathers’ objections. What makes the 16th-century comedic theater form different is improvisation — and leather masks.

“Every play has common themes dealing with universal human needs — love, hunger, sex, money,” Dan Zellner, a multimedia services specialist at University Library, says of the Renaissance Italy–born theater style. “And all of the plays have the same characters, more or less.”

The masks represent stock characters — such as the long-winded, know-it-all professor (Dottore) and the greedy, lecherous old man (Pantalone) — who interact with the unmasked young lovers in a loosely outlined story. The improvised performances always result in a happy ending — everything returns to normal.

Commedia dell’arte also incorporates strenuous physical arts to explore love, lust and the struggle of youth against old age, says Thomas Simpson, a professor in the French and Italian department.

Zellner, who occasionally teaches a commedia class with Simpson, oversaw the creation of an online exhibit of five masks from acclaimed contemporary commedia maestro Antonio Fava. In 2008 the University purchased the five masks through a grant from the estate of Dorothy Jean Adams (WCAS60), which specified that the funds be used for digital media, preservation and the acquisition of materials relating to theatrical costuming. Housed at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, the Fava masks are available for research and performance, and the online exhibit features 3D models.

“The masks found a really good home at Northwestern,” says Zellner, who was an adviser for the student commedia dell’arte group, the Panini Players. In 2007 Northwestern University Press published Fava’s book, The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell’Arte: Actor Training, Improvisation and the Poetics of Survival. Simpson translated the book into English.

The Panini Players, which received Associated Student Government recognition for the first time last spring, are keeping the commedia dell’arte theater style vibrant. The troupe’s artistic director, junior performance studies and biology major Alec Bronder, says the troupe hopes “to keep commedia alive in 2014 just as it was in 1614. I’m glad that we are able to perform it on campus just like new, warts and all.”

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