This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Are old jokes really the best jokes? Two productions seen this past weekend give a pretty good answer.
UCLA Live's presentation of Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters is strong evidence that even after 250 years, some old gags can still be laugh-out-loud funny. Servant of Two Masters is one of the great works by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. Written in 1747, the play was intended to combine the improvisation of commedia dell'arte and the substance of classic stage comedy.
This production, courtesy of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, was first staged in 1947. It's toured here twice previously in the last 52 years, both times with Ferruccio Soleri in the cast.
As his bio reads: "Soleri; is the one and only Arlecchino," and those lucky enough to see the 75 year old performer will probably agree with such a hyperbolic statement.
Some of the gags Soleri employs are older than him--and possibly older than Goldoni. One in particular is the old pratfall of a man who sits on a letter, only to have it stick to the back of his pants. Soleri looking for attached letter in confusion is nothing new (seeing the same gag is as easy as renting an old Chaplin film, or even going down to the 3rd Street Promenade to watch street performers) but the grace that master clown Soleri brings to the act makes it seem brand new.
Soleri has performed the role of Arlecchino over 2,000 times in over 40 countries. In an era of instant celebrity and American Idol, it's easy to forget that real talent is not something that is bestowed by magazine covers or rent-a-judges; but rather, it's a craft that's honed and perfected by years of practice, first in the wings and then on stage.
Nothing illustrates this better than the show currently running in Culver City, All Wear Bowlers. This little stage ditty is a homage to Chaplin and vaudeville era comedy. It opens with an old gag, but a good one: Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle play a Laurel and Hardy-esque duo who stumble out of a silent film and onto the stage. Their interaction with the silent film is well-rehearsed and amusing--if the vaudeville circuit were still around, they'd be a great eight minute routine.
Unfortunately, All Wear Bowlers isn't being presented as a short skit; it's being sold as a full evening's entertainment. Their one gag is stretched to over an hour, which is more than an hour too long.
The old jokes Lyford and Sobelle rehash, involving eggs, spoons, and newspapers are good ones (which is why party magicians still use them) but these two young performers don't tweak the gags in any novel way, and frankly, their slight-of-hand skills would barely get them in the door for amateur night at the Magic Castle.
Lyford and Sobelle obviously love physical comedy and their desire to keep the tradition alive is admirable; but while Chaplin spent years working vaudeville in London, and clown Bill Irwin spent years studying and working in real circuses, the two men responsible for All Wear Bowlers have not spent the requisite time sharpening their skills--and therefore their show doesn't display any real mastery of the art of clowning.
It may be unfair to compare the young men in bowler hats to the veteran Italian performers in Arlecchino, but ticket prices for the two shows are comparable. Arlecchino is twice as long as All Wear Bowlers, but its three-plus hours fly by, and at the end you feel like you could watch the same old jokes all night long
All Wear Bowlers runs through tomorrow night at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, while Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters sadly closed its five show run at UCLA last Sunday; but for those who missed it, the production travels north to Berkeley this weekend. Seeing Ferruccio Soleri play Arlecchino is almost worth a trip to Italy, which for theater fans, makes it certainly worth a drive up Interstate 5.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.