Folly and farce in the Italian Renaissance

Elements of comedy can be found in live theatre from all over the world. And even in cases where a language barrier or missing cultural context prevents us from completely relating to the humour, it’s still possible to enjoy the enthusiasm of the performers and the reactions of the rest of the audience. And there can be a disconnect even in plays written in one’s native tongue. If English is your first language, that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find Shakespeare’s comedies as hilarious as someone from who lived in the 16th-century society that Shakespeare built his plays around. But again, there are still certain narrative tropes that cross language and time and can be universally appreciated.

This is good news for those who don’t speak a lick of Italian and who aren’t experts in 16th-century Italian culture when it comes to this year’s Italian play, La Lena. Though it’s put on by the Department of Language Studies and the Italian theatre group that calls itself “Maschere Duemondi”, this year’s comedy (an adaptation of a 1529 play by Ludovico Ariosto) proves quite accessible to everyone. Of course, the dialogue is helpfully subtitled, but the group has also updated the script to accommodate modern audiences. The final scene of the play even includes a surprisingly topical visual zinger as the play’s closing punchline. Add in a group dance number to “Lady Marmalade” and other more subtly modern dialogue twists and it makes for an interesting blend of the Italian Renaissance and present-day North American culture.

It helps that the story of La Lena is a timeless one. Lena (Amanada Piron) is a woman of questionable reputation whose husband’s debts have forced her to work as a surrogate mother to the beautiful young Licinia. To supplement her income, Lena uses Licinia as bait for a wealthy young suitor, Flavio (Daniel Sestito), who is head over heels in love with Licinia. From there, coincidence and manipulation make all of the characters’ lives considerably more complicated, and a farcical romantic romp ensues.

Flavio’s exaggerated, undying love is one of the funniest and most universal elements of the play, and when he and his servant, Corbolo (Luigi Giangrande), agonize over writing a perfectly manipulative love letter to woo young Licinia, it feels like a scene out of a contemporary romantic comedy. It also helps that Sestito and Giangrande have an easy rapport on stage, making their banter even more fun to watch.

Elsewhere, though, La Lena’s more farcical moments are so exaggerated that the cast has to work hard to keep up the pace. Some plays hinge on absurdity and mayhem, but everything is still meticulously planned and polished behind the scenes so that the action merely appears chaotic. In La Lena, a couple of moments are so busy that it becomes a bit difficult to decipher everything happening on the stage. However, it never goes completely off the rails, so La Lena comes out as an enjoyable success.

The Department of Language Studies has mounted an Italian play every year since 1987, and it has become a staple of UTM culture. Teresa Lobalsamo and Jeannine Debattista, who directed the last three productions, have once again come together with a hardworking cast and crew for this charming comedy. As La Lena shows, it’s possible to combine students of all levels of experience to create a relevant and creative piece of theatre.

La Lena runs until March 3 in room 1080 in the CCT Building.

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