The aptly named Commedia dell’Artichoke doesn’t veer far from its roots—commedia dell’arte, the knockabout comedy style of Renaissance Italy. Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters is a prime example, and although it is occasionally seen on stage nowadays, it was adapted exuberantly into the Broadway hit One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden, who won a Tony Award for his slapstick performance.
There’s perhaps less outright slapstick and energy in Commedia dell’Artichoke, but a good deal of physical interaction in the production, directed by Devin Brain on a stage that’s part traverse, part thrust and part cabaret. The quartet of performers—Carter Gill, Alexandra Henrikson, Tommy Russell, and Shannon Marie Sullivan—are also the creators. Whether artichoke pizza was also part of the historical record is unclear, but before the performance at the intimate Gene Frankel Theatre (variously misconstrued by Henrikson's virago Capitana as the James Franco, the James Dean and the Bethany Frankel), a tasty slice is provided. Or you can choose to go with plain.
The story involves Pulcinella, an archetypal character from commedia, and his attempt to create a flourishing pizzeria business in New York. The main thrust of the plot is that the greedy Capitana is going to raise Pulcinella’s rent; Pulcinella has to wheedle some charity from her or pay up. Capitana (Henrikson) is both a capitalist and a captain of industry, as well as a boss; she is tall, dressed in a white outfit and a coral leather coat, with a white trilby (costumes are by Lisa Loen). She struts and barks about the stage, terrifying her henchman, the milquetoast Mr. Tartaglia (Russell). In a funny moment, she inserts her outsize nose into his mouth until he’s deep-throating it. Renaissance commedia was bawdy as well as physical, and the creators/performers seize every opportunity to infuse sexual license into the proceedings.
In keeping with commedia tradition, half-masks are used for the characters, and yet their attributes shine through, thanks to the actors. The show is divided into 14 lazzi, scenes that include written text which the performers embellish with improvisation. Subsidiary characters appear: Smeraldina (Sullivan), a young woman in a hat with a flower at the front (the archetype was originally a servant); two strapping working-class guys in blue overalls who make tentative overtures toward each other, which feels outside commedia; and an old peasant woman in a head scarf whom Pulcinella has hired, he says, because “I can pay her 78% of the nothing I would have to pay male.” A savvy listener might grasp fits and snatches of everything from Dark Victory to Waiting for Godot.
Typically, the commedia is topical, laden with references to well-known people (e.g., Pina Bausch, “that beautiful woman who wears a red dress and dances in that theater in Brooklyn nobody knows how to get to”) and familiar situations (the feminist Smeraldina demands of one of the men: “You gotta tell me I’m pretty, and tell me you love me, and that I look skinny in my sweatpants, and sexy even though all my underwear has period stains on ’em.”).
That tasteless punch line is not the worst among many that would raise eyebrows in a brothel: Some salad greens are flung about to set up a particularly cringeworthy comment, and there’s a tortured set-up for another joke involving the Public Theater.
There are songs, too, that delight in nonsense and current events. Sings Smeraldina, à la “My Favorite Things”: “Springtime and puppy dogs/And coffee with cream/Cat memes and Neil deGrasse/ Tyson’s Twitter feed/These things are all things that I like yippee/Cupcakes and sparkles/And pizza with cheese.”
The multiple cooks have created a farrago of nonsense, wordplay, awkward situations, and bawdry that may approximate the Renaissance version. But Brain allows several scenes to go on too long (though, given that improvisation is essential, the blame is perhaps more the actors'). Even if it doesn’t all hang together, the audience seemed to have a roaring good time. If you appreciate scattershot, loosey-goosey comedy, then Commedia dell’Artichoke may be to your taste. Or try a slice of the plain.
Commedia dell’Artichoke plays through Feb. 6 at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St. between Bowery and Lafayette Sts.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and on Sunday, Jan. 24, and at 8 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday. Tickets are $30 and may be obtained by visiting www.commediadellartichoke.com.