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Art For Sale (Fringe Festival 2012)

by Geoffrey Paddy Johnson on August 19, 2012

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Drawing upon the centuries old Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, the U.S. group of players, Tut’Zanni Theatre Company, bring the vagabond aesthetic to this year’s New York Fringe Festival with their production, Art For Sale. The five young members of the troupe met at the Accademia dell’Arte Theatre School in Arezzo, Italy in 2006, and six years on are still working to relate the theatrical format to contemporary audiences. An admirable goal to be sure, but what precisely do they get up to?

On the basis of the performance I attended, sad to say, not much. Unless you consider irritation a proper end in itself. Flush with a sense of mission, schooled by … experts, beyond their youthful appeal and obvious delight in performance there is precious little to recommend them. It may be historically interesting to replay and re-energize these well established theatrical types, but to keep it interesting for a contemporary audience perhaps you could convey them in the context of a meaningful, or at least compelling story. Tut’Zanni present a series of shallow, belabored skits, ostensibly as the beginnings of some grander tale, but take it nowhere. Charitably I’ll interpret this as intentional, and as some sort of satirical riff on audience expectation and the difficulties associated with sustaining a small theatrical outfit. It looks simply like amateurish clowning in archaic, decorative masks – which some might argue is Comedia dell’arte in a nutshell. Isn’t it possible to conceive of these broad theatrical personae – Pantalone, Colombina –  participating in a story with intrigue, pace, and – gasp! – nuance? Beyond a grasp of the various Comedia types – their gestures and motivations, it is not clear what Tut’Zanni learned in their time at the Academy. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with vocalization. Most of the lines are exclaimed here as if being archly projected at an audience of five year olds (there weren’t any five year olds in the audience when I attended). More damaging still, that most basic, most desirable of performative principals was notably absent: how to hold an audience’s attention. Improvisation may be part of the Comedia’s bag of tricks, but you want to embark upon it with a semblance of theatrical presence. Masks (and there was a nice contemporary frog mask!) and costumes (some of these were nice too) can hold attention for only so long. Somebody has to inhabit them, invest them with life. It’s not so much the insistence upon repetition which deadens, but the basic lack of command of attention. Coupled with a fraudulent stab at narrative, the combination is wormwood.

It is possible that an audience of five year olds might have found some diversion in what was happening on stage. To this reviewer it seemed that –  costume changes, shadow puppetry, singing notwithstanding – more fun was being had by the performers behind the scenes than by the audience in front of the stage. To wit, when the spectacle at length dragged to a conclusion, and the audience still kept their seats, a voice from behind a screen declared, “That’s it. Show’s over.”  For attendees, some of them clearly still well meaning, it wasn’t obvious that anything had ever begun. Art For Sale? Clearly there’s something wrong with this sentence. Buyer, beware.


Tut’Zanni Theatre Ensemble
Writer: Original Canovaccio by ALi Landvatter, Text by ALi Landvatter, Dory Ford Sibley, Allegra Libonati, Liam Mulshine, Molly Tomhave and Patrick Berger
Director: ALi Landvatter, Dory Ford Sibley, Allegra Libonati, Liam Mulshine, Molly Tomhave and Patrick Berger,
Commedia dell’Arte from the source! A night of comedy, live music, acrobatics, mask and shadow puppetry. Featured in the CrisisArt Festival in Arezzo, Italy, ART FOR SALE is a hilarious true expression that illustrates the struggle and satisfaction of being an artist.
1h 15m   National   Los Angeles, California
Clown/Mask   Comedy
Staycation: Overseas Adventure   Ripped from the Headlines
VENUE #12: Cherry Lane Theatre
Sat 11 @ 9:30  Wed 15 @ 2:15  Sat 18 @ 6  Sun 19 @ 2:45  Sat 25 @ 9:45  

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JNo Gravatar August 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I also attended the Saturday performance and think it’s unfair of you to assume the rest of the audience disliked the show as much as you did. I really enjoyed the show, as did the rest of my group of six, and found it interesting to be exposed to a form of theater I had never seen before. I hope Tutzanni keeps playing with the idea of updating Commedia and bringing it to modern audiences.

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