Viva Italia!

Ciao, bello/a. Come stai? Buono/a. Io? Bene, bene, grazie. Ma ho stancissimo, perche sono "jetlagged." Forse. Anche forse perche molto movemente questa volta in Italia.

Believe it or not, my Italian has improved, despite the evidence to the contrary that I willfully submit above (the which is all kinds of wrong, and took me about an hour to put together). It is still woefully inadequate, though, and I'll have to do something about that in the coming months, because Zuppa del Giorno's prospects in Italy -- not to mention other work in conjunction with Italian artists -- is blossoming. We are in the springtime of our, uh . . . soup.

Sorry. Still blaming the jetlag.

Well. I really wanted to catalogue the whole trip day-by-day, as I did last June, but since I killed my laptop in the (actual) spring, and as we tend to go a bit rustic when we visit Madonna Italia, it was not to be. I could try to recreate that effect but, well, it would be pretty boring. Not because we did so little, but because we did so much of the same thing in our first week. We WORKED. As you know from my last entry, Heather and I had to throw a show together specifically for this visit and (as you know from either experience or my previous writings or both) such a process takes exactly as long as it takes. No rushing it. Which means you either give it the time, or you don't. We did, and to the greatest extent we could manage between two American cities and mired in the swamp that is jetlag.

The flight out was delayed an astonishing four hours, all told. It was just Heather and I -- David and the theatre's stage manager, Marybeth Langdon, had preceded us on the 6th. For those of you who've never flown overseas, let me tell you: There is no good time to do it. I thought we were all set, flying overnight. I would just sleep through the thing, losing hours left, right and center, and awake at about noon in sunny Italy. Instead, I slept for maybe a combined hour-and-a-half and awoke around 4:00 in a somewhat less-than-sunny Italy. In fact, it rained daily for the entire first week, and some nights we built a fire in the divinely-bequeathed fireplace our little villa provided. Altogether oddly arduous. But enough of the fluff; on to the stuff.

We've developed our own little community of artists and business folk in central Italy, and that became evident as it determined our schedule on this trip. Rehearsals for Love Is Crazy, But Good were broken up with (and, in one case, integrated into) daily meetings with various of our contacts. Normally these were meetings that coincided with meals or coffee, which is the nice thing about our particular experience of Italy. And, because the US-dollar exchange rate is horrible horrible horrible at present, this often meant inviting folks to lunch or dinner at our place out in the country. (Fortunately for us, David Zarko is a masterly amateur chef.) And that meant that Heather and I spent a lot of time on the patio, either eating or developing the act.

One of our most exciting departures from this scene was to spend time with Angelo Crotti, a new friend there whom we met through Andrea Brugnera. Angelo is an Italian actor specializing in commedia dell'arte and other forms of comic physical theatre; he's been practicing it all his life, and it shows, as he travels internationally to perform and teach. Our introduction to him was to watch him teach a class in traditional commedia dell'arte forms and lazzi to some of Andrea's students, the day after Heather and I arrived. He did some fascinating stuff, that we'll promptly steal and incorporate into our workshops. Perhaps unavoidably, we eventually got wrapped up in the action, in spite of our jet-lagged states. He showed us some incredible animal forms that demanded serious physical commitment AND conditioning, and we were generally working up quite a sweat for a while. LOVED IT. Then we made the mistake of sitting down on a break, and both Heather and I promptly engaged in a struggle against overpowering needs to sleep. That was okay, we figured, because Angelo began the next section with brief lectures on the commedia masks and their corresponding characters. As the comfortable Italian speech pranced merrily over us, he moved on to asking the students to take a mask and perform a solo bit of dialogue with the audience in it. Good, good . . . watching students . . . mustn't take their time away from them, now . . . just . . . watch . . .

Huh-uh. We sure did get called on. "No, no," I feebly protested in my pigeon Italian, "Studenti. Studenti. No occupado (was that Spanish, Jeff?) questa volta." They weren't having it and, frankly, I was a little sick of myself as I said it, too. But, damn, was I spent. It turned out the students were working with Angelo the next day as well, so there was plenty of time for everyone, and up I went to choose a mask from the edge of the beautiful Teatro Boni stage. There they all were, and I waited for one to speak to me. I'm pretty familiar with commedia masks, but have trouble distinguishing sometimes, mainly owing to a certain amount of misinformation I've processed in the years of my informal education on the subject. For example, I had learned at some time that Pantalone had a long nose, because he was "nosey" and a phallic character. Well, he often is, but it turns out that Capitano is the one more famous for having a prominent phallus on his face, and Pantalone can have a hook or squarish nose as well. So I stood there, throwing out my presumptive conclusions, and just picked a mask which appealed. It was yellow-brown-er than the rest, with no hair accents, but lots of wrinkles and a hook nose. The point of the exercise was to improvise the mask's nature based on how it looked and felt, but I felt obliged to announce I didn't know who I had gotten as I left the stage to make my entrance. Turns out I had gone right ahead and picked up Pulcinella.

Pulcinella holds a certain fascination for me, not the least of which is owing to a desire Heather and I have to someday create our own show based on the Punch & Judy puppet theatre of Victorian England ("Punch" was inspired by commedia troupes' various "Pulcinelli"). He's also a tricky one, as his overall shape seemed to evolve from a couple of different regions of Italy, and thereby his personality can be a bit more mercurial than some. Plus he rarely gets mentioned in what I've read and heard about the standard characters; he's well-known enough, but somewhat amorphous. Typically--from what I understand--he's a trickster, with a hunch back and a prominent belly. At that moment, however, I tried to wipe all that from my mind and briefly regard the mask offstage (as Friend Patrick taught me to do) for clues about who he would make me before breathing in and putting him on.

Let me just interrupt myself to say that, though it read as a certain groggy fear at the time, it was an absolute thrill to step out on a classical Italian stage and perform in mask for a couple of actors trained in commedia dell'arte.

My mask (for truly, I made no effort toward Pulcinella once I set foot on stage) worked pretty well for me, I think. Everyone performed through a sort of guided interview with Angelo, which was interesting in this case owing to his emphatic English and my god-awful Italian, but we did get along. I began as a rather obstinate fellow, with a supportive cushion of arrogance around him that held up his body in quirky ways -- a hip raised, hands bent outward from the wrists, bird-like neck, all very vain, yet through energy instead of ease. It was (I believe) as though I knew I was the greatest, yet also knew I had to convince everyone else of it as well. I thought of the Italians (to generalize grossly for a moment) and how they all seem to be great about putting what they've got out there and loving it, and so I did that as a guy who really didn't have anything to brag about, but didn't know it. Eventually Angelo quizzed him (me) on how to seduce a woman, and I claimed complete expertise, saying and demonstrating all it took was a rapidly thrust hip from me. He had me bring up a couple of students and work it on them, and I got to play with success, selling something as success, and undeniable failure which is promptly denied. It was great fun.

Angelo -- who is also simply an incredibly funny guy, with what seems like a kind word for everyone and an endless need to be active -- also helped us with our piece two days later. The beginning of that rehearsal, I can confidently say, was the lowest point of my mood and confidence in what we were planning to perform on Saturday. We demonstrated what we had first thing, and it suddenly felt woefully inadequate, trite, and a really, really bad idea altogether. It was Thursday, two days before we were set to perform in Il Teatro che Cammina, and it was grim. I was embarrassed, frankly, and frustrated with the circumstances of our constantly pulling things together at the last minute, never seeming to have the money or time to develop or explore, and all that was really a jagged veneer of emotion covering fear: maybe I'm just not cut out for this work. Ugh. So bad.

Keeping with the Tarantino/Rashomon theme here: The performances on Saturday were not an unqualified success. We had two showings of the ultimately half-hour clown show, the first at 9:00 pm, and the last at 11:00, all as a part of a festival that took over the town with predominantly physical spectacle such as dance, circus-theatre and street performance. (For once, we were probably the least physically eccentric act on the bill.) Our first show made me want to crawl under the stage and hide; David came up to us afterwards and said, "Well that wasn't that bad," thereby straining his otherwise stalwart reputation for honesty. The second show, however, hummed. It had sound failures on both ends, which should have been fatal for a predominantly choreographed show, but the audience was with us and we all had a tremendous amount of fun and at the end, I felt I had earned their kind applause.

What happened between the two shows was this: We intended to use our little break of less-than-an-hour to explore and see other shows and generally try to forget we had another to do. Instead, we were invited into a building next door by some very kind older gentlemen who had a great view of our stage from their windows. They wanted to make sure we knew we could use the bathroom there (which we needed) and while we were there I discovered that the fly on my costume had popped permanently. I tried to ask them for a paper clip or something, explaining my situation through gesture, and they set about raiding office supplies for me. One withdrew a binder clip. "I don't think that'll work." Then he pulled out a stapler, jokingly. "Ci, ci! Parfetto!" I cried, and he, hesitating somewhat, handed it to me. I promptly stapled my wool pants closed with the knowledge that within the first ten minutes of the show I'd tear them off anyway. They found that pretty amusing, and then one of them reached into a drawer and pulled out scissors, gesturing mischievously toward my crotch. Here we were, almost completely incapable of communicating with language, and the lazzi was flowing. From there they invited us all to sit with them, and Heather worked her Italian magic on them. A friend of theirs, Silvano, the oldest yet, visited, was introduced to us, then came from out of the back room with wine and water for everyone. We relaxed. We laughed. And, after all that, Silvano worked to rope audience in to our space for the second show, possibly single-handedly ensuring us that our little courtyard performance would be full for its closing.

The hours spent working with Angelo on our piece were similar to our time with the old men, and this commonality was also in the spirit Heather and I found in our second performance. Angelo took us through what we had in terms of structure, and broke it down into bits -- bits we had already, and bits we inspired him to add. Given a little time to overcome our initial shame and frustration, we found with him a familiar game of discovery, getting excited about our connections and ideas, and really building from one moment to the next. It was brilliant. It reminded me, suddenly and unexpectedly, and from the midst of a recent history of disappointing efforts on my part, of what I love about this work and what keeps me excited about it. With Angelo we returned to our sense of play, with the old men we rediscovered our love of people, of communication, and in the final shot at the show we finally figured out how to have fun with it, and with our audience. Hell: It even happened in a three, looking at it that way!

That performance wasn't the be-all-end-all by a long shot, but it was shot of life that I had certainly been looking for lately. Maybe our enthusiasm had something to do with knowing we were being relieved of a great stress after our final show, and maybe our ease with the audience had a lot to do with their greater numbers and better understanding of what to expect. Nevertheless, coincidence or hard work or that lovely synchronicity of the two, it was a beautiful thing. And it didn't take much longer for the sun to start shining in Umbria again.