Commedia Dell'Art Car

If there's a theatrical equivalent to Houston's Art Car parade, I suppose it's commedia dell'arte. So Carlos Goldoni's 18th-century farce Mirandolina, in a new translation by Eberle Thomas, was a witty choice by Stages artistic director Sidney Berger, in honor of Italy and the Houston International Festival. The play has the same high spirits, bright colors, grand gestures and consummate absurdity as the city's annual exercise in down-home artistic excess. It's a tossup as to which is sillier.

Mirandolina is a light-footed comic dance of human vanity and light romance in which a handful (four fingers and a thumb) of foolish men whirl around a frivolous little slip of an innkeeper/

oquette, the impish Mirandolina (Alissa Alban). The hapless rivals for her hand are a bankrupt Marquis (Robert Leeds), a bulging Count (Vance Ormes), a jealous waiter (Derek Cecil), an obsequious Sergeant (James Parsons) and, most ridiculous of all, a vainglorious Major (Jef Johnson). Each man imagines, in deluded turn, that Mirandolina is his for the taking; each in turn finds out that he has, in one flirtatious way or another, been taken.

There is no illusion of realism in these hijinks, and director Carolyn Houston Boone accordingly squeezes the material for every possible horselaugh. The jokes are broad and the comedy very physical, and the premise only as wide as required to support the light tread of the charming Mirandolina. In the play's first few moments, it is made clear that every man in the neighborhood is in her thrall except the pompous Major, who loudly declares his lifelong aversion to women. Accordingly, Mirandolina tells us that in defense of the fairer sex, she will make it her personal challenge to bring the Major to heel. The outcome is never in doubt; the only questions are how long it will take and how Mirandolina will manage it.

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She does so easily enough. She simply tends to the Major's every request -- especially to his sensitive palate (this is an Italian play, after all) -- meanwhile (very) passionately agreeing with him that women in general, and romance in particular, are useless and dangerous avocations. Few men can withstand having their stomachs and opinions flattered simultaneously, and in a matter of moments strung out through several noisy and flamboyant scenes, the Major succumbs. Meanwhile, Mirandolina artfully keeps at bay all her other suitors, collecting the odd gift here and there in tribute and fanning the flames of her jealous waiter, Fabrizio, to whom she has been (sort of) promised. (Quick-witted members of the audience will note that Fabrizio is the only male character allowed the distinction of an actual name.)

Subtlety is not the strong suit (indeed, any suit) of commedia dell'arte. What you see is what you get, and it lives or dies pretty much on the strength of its players. Goldoni is well served by Boone's frenetic conception and by her principals, who make the most of the script's mugging opportunities for the milking of guffaws. Petite Alissa Alban is not the sort of actress one ordinarily thinks of as a seductress, but she has a lighthearted manner and a wide-eyed, fetching ingenuousness, and her performance has a playful intelligence that is finally winning. (As the Sergeant wistfully laments: "A woman like that, I'd follow her around like a puppy.")

As the abject Marquis and the grandiose Count, Robert Leeds and Vance Ormes have little to do but act like pseudo-aristocratic flaming idiots, and they do so with a heartiness that keeps the proceedings moving whenever MirandolinaÕs plot against the Major needs complication. James Parsons has several amusing moments as the supercilious Sergeant, and Derek Cecil waxes morose and desperate as Mirandolina's would-be betrothed, Fabrizio.

But the biggest laughs of the evening belong to Jef Johnson, who brings a brazenly madcap athleticism to the role of the Major. Johnson's strenuously nutty performance pretty much steals the show. The stock character type of the Major long precedes Goldoni's theater, dating at least from the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) of Roman comedy, and its long history is rejustified here. Johnson blows up his stiff-backed military man to Mussolini-esque proportions (one sly benefit of Boone's pop-'30s setting), so that the Major's undoing at the hands of a smiling woman is all the more humiliating. When he falls, the crash is spectacular: Johnson becomes a craven, growling, barking, sweating, wincing, sneering, collapsing puddle of once-masculine protoplasm, and all that's left is for Mirandolina to ever-so-politely send him packing.

Looking through Johnson's deranged and desperate eyes into Alban's seemingly innocent yet remorseless ones, flashing with triumph, it's easy to feel the Major's anguish. Out of Goldoni's slight and frothy comic cookery, the two of them have made piquant and tasty ragout.

-- Michael King

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