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theater: Italian Theater Unmasked

In "The Venetian Twins" actors ignore the "fourth wall" and interact with the audience.

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Landi from Rome is a renowned broadcast journalist whose work has taken him around the world, from the tropical island of Maluku, to the little country of Latvia, and as far as the remote city of … Richmond. "This season, Paolo Emilio Landi can be found at the University of Richmond, not producing documentaries on apartheid or the Holocaust, but fulfilling the other role of his dual career. Landi, who holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Rome, is currently guest professor at UR, teaching 12th-century Italian theater and directing Carlo Goldoni's "The Venetian Twins," which opens this week at the Modlin Center.

Those familiar with the topics of Landi's film work might expect his theater interests to center solely on somber dramas or tragedies. To the contrary, Landi's production of "The Venetian Twins" is an example of commedia dell'arte that has delighted audiences worldwide. In 1995, Landi's production of "The Venetian Twins" opened at the State Omsk Drama Theatre in Russia where it is still running. So it seems that Landi has a special talent for commedia dell'arte. "This is a gift," he says, "No matter French, German, Russian — I seem to have this success."



According to Landi, commedia dell'arte is a heritage common to many international theater forms, including those of America. "Unfortunately," he says, "it is little known and even less put in practice. University students and professionals rarely get introduced to its physical energy, games, masks and improvisations." Although around for centuries, commedia dell'arte, according to Landi, can be likened to today's stand-up comedy. "We are not reviving an old tradition," Landi says. He cites slapstick and performances by Charlie Chaplin and Lenny Bruce as contemporary examples of the form. "In commedia," Landi says, "you don't have the 'fourth wall.'" Instead, actors connect with and interact with the audience. "The best partner of the actor on the stage is the audience," he says. The use of masks is a familiar feature of commedia dell'arte. Not all performers wear them, but those who do, represent stereotypical characters. In early theater, Landi says, masks were worn for better acoustics in the open market, where performers were paid to lure people in to shop. They also protected the identities of the actors, so they could not be held liable for their statements.



Based on a Greek comedy, "The Venetian Twins" is set in the 18th century. It tells the story of two brothers, one very smart and the other stupid. The twins happen to be in the same town, one to marry a girl he has never seen, and the other to find his fiancee who has escaped from Venice. The countless misunderstandings prove to be the ideal setup for a comedy of errors.



Among the cast of 17, which includes guest artists Linda Livingstone and Daryl Phillips, Jim Morgan takes on the challenge of playing twins. Stage design is by Reed West and the ambitious period costume design is by Santi Migneco of Rome.



Already familiar with the challenges of documentary filmmaking, Landi also has an understanding of the unique pressures of producing live comedy onstage.



"In my experience," Landi says, "to stage a drama, if someone in the audience falls asleep, no one knows. In comedy, if no one laughs, everyone knows." And that, Paolo Landi knows, would indeed be a tragedy. S"The Venetian Twins" plays at the Alice Jepson Theatre at the Modlin Center, April 11 - 13 at 7:30 p.m. and April 14 at 2 p.m. Tickets: $8 adults, $7 seniors and students. 289-8980.



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