One of the best kept secrets in Manhattan for enjoying a night of rollicking, hysterical fun, lip-smacking sumptuous pizza and a bit of wine to restore one’s nerves during a hectic work week is Commedia dell’Artichoke at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Presented by Frances Black Projects in association with CAP21, the production is a hyper blast party of stupendous fun which runs until February 6.
Commedia dell’Artichoke is a ripping comedy like no other you will see in the city for its inventiveness, extemporaneous joyride, audience participation and prescient, trending humor. It’s conceived by the ingenious team of Frances Black, Carter Gill and Tommy Russell, who have honed their artistic statement into a whimsical whirlwind, a compendium of ancient and modern social satire about how the wealthy stick it to the classes beneath them and how the working classes push back with resilience, humor and verve. The show boasts Devin Brain at the director’s helm who skillfully guides the unique performance art of Carter Gill, Alexandra Henrikson, Tommy Russell and Shannon Marie Sullivan. All of these actors are scintillating.
Over the course of the evening, Gill, Henrikson, Russell and Sullivan broadly portray 10 characters in the Commedia dell’arte style, with grotesque masks, antic characterizations and hyper-mannered behaviors. Not only are the actors superb comedians with expert timing, they sing and dance with sheer abandon. The show has an extemporaneous feel, added to by the audience participation: anything can happen. Surprising moments are completely appropriate to the winding, picaresque storyline.
The beauty of the production is that the silly absurdity of some scenes allows the actors’ musical breakouts, which prompt our unexpected laughter. And that ebbs into somber thoughtfulness about the wisdom of what we have experienced; this is expert, clever, comic pacing. We appreciate the pithy jokes about “The American Dream-nightmare,” trending political slogans, social media topics, gender loops and much more. The humor is sardonic, darkly funny, socially meaningful. All makes complete sense, and you have the time of your life romping in the intellectual brilliance and ridiculousness of these characters who “know the score.”
The original musical numbers are beautifully integrated, with appropriate accompaniment by band leader and multi-instrumentalist Robert Cowie. The music helps shape the plot dynamics and organically evokes the scenes. The actors/characters bring Cowie into their ensemble as their dutiful “conductor” of fun. He good-naturedly accompanies/instigates the songs, fanciful tunes and dances.
This “gypsy” music echoes the ideas of love and empathy. In a deus ex machina rescue, the villain, Adam Smith’s “Vile Maxim” incarnate, La Capitana (portrayed with audacious, Trump-like ferocity by the operatic Alexandra Henrikson), is deflected from enacting dire financial doom upon our hero, Carter Gill’s brash, endearing everyman and pizza “entrepreneur” Pulcinella. As the production concludes, hope and a stay of financial execution are achieved for another day. All ends well in the perfect unity of comedy.
If I had to explain to you specifically how we arrived at this superb finale, I couldn’t. The journey is labyrinthine, fraught with diversions and robust antic scenes from Pulcinella’s conflicted life, leading back to the beginnings when Pulcinella, whose pizza we have enjoyed, explains his New York City dreams to become a “self-made man.” With gyrating plot arcs which double back on themselves, vignettes which make sense in their nonsense, and brilliant jokes that kill as they are tossed off like salad leaves for you to either graze on or disallow, this is as close to Commedia dell’arte style as you will see in our savvy, super-cool city.
Scenes spiral out from protagonist Pulcinella and his retinue. The conflict pounces on our poor hero in the form of villain Capitana and her sycophant lackey Tartaglia. Capitana, a crazy caricature of the stereotypical mannish woman boss, signifies the American nightmare of the business class that will stop at nothing to make American business “great,” “big” and “hard” again in order to blow away China (the sexual allusions are funny).
In keeping with these undemocratic notions, Capitana must wipe out Pulcinella and develop the area (her projected store possibilities are riotous) into “greatness.” It is a displacing event all too familiar to real-estate-pressured New Yorkers. Along the way, we meet other Commedia-style “stock” characters in Pulcinella’s life, modernized but with their Commedia flavor (thanks to Commedia consultant Christopher Bayes) present. The comic scenario has been ramped up to satirize urban life, mega-developers vs. the little guy, crazy cultural tropes, corporate business models, etc.
The hijinks are nonstop. And as you enjoy the entertainment, you also swallow the characters’ irony about our city’s social infirmities: its hyper-development, its classism, its intransigence against democratic wellbeing for all. We laugh as Pulcinella comments about having to work and work and work some more and work your butt off and do more work, ostensibly to make it to the first rung up the ladder of success.
And as for climbing up into the clouds where the Bloombergs and Trumps abide, there’s always a Capitana to toll the financial death knell or pour acid into one’s bleeding bank wounds. These types manifest the cryptic financial screed of being “bigger and better” (as Capitana does to Pulcinella) by raising the rent to “one dollar more than you can afford.” Though it isn’t stated, the message is clear and we have come to know it as brutal irony: “It’s nothing personal, just business.”
The actors’ high energy spins out other rapid-fire scenes about the ridiculousness of who we choose to love, the zany relationships we become involved in, and a guy’s proper etiquette toward a gal. Such pointed jokes ground us in ourselves. The sharp humor brings us to the remembrance that in the theater as in life, we are in this together. As we laugh, we encourage each other to enjoy the journey. We can control some things, but other events just unfold. We dare not stand in the shadows nor miss the passing parade or the fun will dissolve. Just dive in and don’t consider how it will turn out because what you prepare for won’t necessarily happen in the ways you expect.
Pulcinella’s artichoke pizza is one of the better pizzas in the city. You certainly do not want to miss his hard work and the effort it took to concoct his super recipe of deliciousness and fun. The production is comic genius. The show should be extended or brought back again in another venue. See it while you still can. Commedia dell’Artichoke will be at the Gene Frankel Theatre until February 6.