Commedia dell’Arte, the old Italian comedic that forms the foundation for new American comedy The Good Devil (in Spite of Himself), is very much like the Looney Toons of old. Not only is it characterized by slapstick whackiness, recognizable tunes, and situations so direct they appeal to all ages, but it also polarizes audiences when it sweeps in and out of the zeitgeist.
Commedia is currently on the upswing, at least here in DC where Faction of Fools is entirely devoted to the art form and several companies produce work that derives from the form, including Helen Hayes bombshell Happenstance Theater and WSC Avant Bard, which is producing The Good Devil.
That familiarity makes Good Devil a good bet for a savvy DC theater-goer, since Mario Baldessari and Tyler Herman’s new play doesn’t just pick up the mantle of commedia, it lays down, flips it and reverses it with convoluted but hilarious meta-theatricality. If you’ve found yourself guffawing in enjoyment of the silly physical theater recently playing all over town, but still wishing it would be taken to the next level, this play is for you.
The plot is the unfolding of a play gone totally and irretrievably wrong. It begins abruptly with an argument between lead actor Salvatore Spititucci (played by an insatiably charming Matthew Aldwin McGee) and his wife Rosina (flexible firebrand Natalie Cutcher). It seems that all the other actors have left just before the company was going to put on the classic Faust. Then, to pile on, Royal Messenger Doug Wilder struts his way onstage to announce that the King has banned all dialogue from the stage. So if the Spitituccis are going to put on Faust for us, the waiting audience, they must not only do it by themselves, but also without dialogue on the stage, under threat of death.
Just like any great farce, the whole fun of Good Devil is the early, clear establishment of restrictive rules and then a subsequent 90 minutes comprised of trying to subvert those rules. The invention playwrights Baldessari and Herman resort to is at once cockamamie and brilliant. It involves no fewer than 7 songs (nearly putting this 100 minute 3-hander into musical territory), various forms of mime and dance, bringing the Royal Messenger in to play significant roles, intensive discussions of what constitutes “dialogue” and “the stage,” and a multitude of other workarounds that are too fun to spoil here.
The quality of some of these workarounds, especially the music, is quite fun though charmingly rough around the edges. Baldessari and Herman have quite the knack for lyrics that hit the trifecta of memorable, well-timed, and unblushingly naughty. Herman, also directing, finds ways to keep his cast moving, especially through doors (the key to a good farce) while still maintaining the feeling of a “broken” play.
I use quotation marks for “broken” because it has a very specific meaning in this context: a play that has gone off the rails, a situation gone beyond all rehearsal preparation, and a cast trying to salvage an audience that could turn against them at any moment. Feel lucky if you’ve never experienced this type of live theatrical version of an auto accident as an audience member, doubly so if you’ve never been in it as an actor. The danger here is that it is all fun and games to pretend to be in a play that has been broken (which is what Good Devil aims at), but actually being in that situation is one of the most terrifying (usually) non-violent experiences a human being can endure.
The Good Devil (in Spite of Himself)
Closes July 17, 2016
Details and tickets
The difficulty here is that Good Devil frequently feels like it has gone off the rails for real. There are a few clues that point to this potentiality of brokenness. Sometimes the clues are small, more annoying than scary. Pauses between changes that last far too long. A halting sense of awkwardness when a cue has been missed. Quirks of live theater that keep stagework interesting and difficult, indications of the need to tighten rather than worry. These factors make me feel bemused as an audience member, wishing for snappy, clean farce that has the speed and power that the commedia form requires.
More than likely these are kinks that will be worked out with more rehearsal, some adjustment, and change as more audiences come in. Like most meta-theatrical work, Good Devil has a perfect niche audience: those who already love commedia, the slapstick theater, and the Rough theater. If you’re not sure what those things are, ask yourself if you love Looney Toons, and you’ll have your answer about whether to see Good Devil (In Spite of Himself).
The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) by Mario Baldessari and Tyler Herman. Directed bvy tyler Herman. Featuring Natalie Cutcher, Matthew Aldwin McGee, and Doug Wilder. Set Design: Brian Gillick . Costume Design: Lynly Saunders . Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Mask and Properties Design: Sarah Conte. Stage Manager: Becca Spencer . Resident Dramaturg: Maegan Clearwood . Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Alan Katz.