That’s Amore

Altarena Playhouse stages a bubbly, family-friendly Scapino!

Fans of broad, bright humor have a delightful surprise in store at the Altarena Playhouse, where Frank Dunlop and Jim Dale’s gloss on Molière, Scapino!, is shaking its slapsticky tush all over the stage. This combination of 16th-century commedia dell’arte and modern dress proves to be just the ticket for the venerable community theater; it’s broad and forgiving, thrives on exuberance, and pleases audiences of all ages. Traditionally, commedia treads the line between true improv and a completely scripted work. Although there isn’t a script per se, with dialogue and stage directions and so forth, there is an outline that the players have agreed upon in advance. This script, and especially this production, which was a little bumpy (but cheerfully so) opening night, captures the feeling of classic commedia in the story of two young men who are desperate to marry sweethearts not of their fathers’ choosing.

Set in a sunny seaside Italian town, Scapino! follows Ottavio and Leandro as they enlist the aid of the titular scalawag, the servant of Ottavio’s blustery father Argante. Scapino’s task is to get the boys married off to their true loves, squeeze money out of their miserly fathers, and wreak a little revenge of his own. Too much for a lesser rascal, but all in a day’s work for Scapino, played here with total confidence, a husky voice, and insouciant sex appeal by Jim Hiser. He’s matched by two appropriately clueless young men and their inamoratas (the lovers, in commedia, are generally much prettier than they are smart) and a sort of smarmy sidekick, Dirk Echols’ Sylvestro. The cast is rounded out with two fathers, a passel of saucy waitresses and hangers-on, and an exceptionally versatile live accordionist. While there seems to be no consensus on whether to do the show with accents or not, what the players lack in polish they more than make up for in physical bravado as they spin, stumble, and pratfall across the stage.

To which end director Loretta Janca did a smart thing. Audiences reading the program may not realize that when Janca asked local resident Jeff Raz to talk to her cast about doing commedia, she was bringing out the big guns. Raz is a seasoned veteran of such outfits as the New Pickle Family Circus and currently runs the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco; he knows his stuff, and the cast clearly listened.

One thing about commedia is that if you know the form, there are certain things you expect to see, and this show doesn’t disappoint: extended sausage abuse, a man hidden in a sack, dedicated if not-too-bright lovers and, of course, lazzi (lot-see), comic bits that may have little or nothing to do with the main action, but the performer does them anyway. Most notably here we get Mike Nebeker juggling and singing, and Dana Lovecchio blowing bubbles and playing with the audience as the bumbling waitress Stupina. Also true to form, this is one of those shows where shy audience members might want to avoid the front row; although if you’re bold and sitting in the right place you might end up on stage feasting on wine and pizza. Light in spirit and heavy with pop-culture references from The Godfather to Charlie’s Angels, there’s a lot to enjoy in this bubbly, family-friendly production even if you don’t get pizza.

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