Art of the Mask reveals bizarre but fascinating take on theater

Last Tuesday evening in the AMT DownStage theatre, Mace Perlman lectured about and performed as if he were part of Commedia dellarte, a forebearer to modern slapstick comedy. “The Art of the Mask” found Perlman incessantly shuttling between discussing Commedia dellarte and actually playing its best-known characters. As a piece of theater, Perlman’s realization of a multitude of characters was delightful. The coupling of this with his intellectual commentary produced a tantalizing introduction to Commedia dellarte.

Commedia dellarte was a theatrical movement that reigned in Europe from the 16th until the mid-18th centuries. Although it was an Italian phenomenon, its troupes toured all across Europe, from Scandinavia to the Iberian Peninsula. The highly farcical performances for which the Commedia was known revolved around the antics of a given cast of stock characters that varied somewhat from performance to performance.

The title of Perlman’s performance suits the presentation well; in Commedia dellarte the male characters all wore masks that corresponded to their roles in the performance. The mask worked with the performer himself – his clothing, his posture, the way he arranged his limbs, the tricks of his voice – to create a complete portrait of the ludicrous character represented.

Perlman compared Commedia dellarte to Shakespeare throughout the evening, both as a kindred artist and as a pupil. He spoke of how the mask, a piece of leather fitted to the performer’s face, the exterior hammered as if to superimpose the character on the performer, is the key to the character just as Shakespeare’s words are to his characters. The masks certainly have personality, but, Perlman argued, are primarily vehicles of representation.

After a brief introduction, the evening was devoted to introducing and performing standard Commedia dellarte characters in their appropriate masks. Perlman first introduced Pantalone dei Bisognosi, a merchant of Venice (sound familiar) of considerable power and wealth. Bisognosi is quite used to having his way and having the means to get it, although he is not apt to part with any of his means to help anyone else get anything.

While introducing Bisognosi, Perlman had wrapped a cloak around his body and held the mountainously nosed mask in one hand. He lowered the mask onto his features and let his shoulders crumple in on his stomach, his pelvis haphazardly jutting forward over bent legs. His head heavily swayed above the body in mid-collapse. And then an old man wished us good day, apologized for his indiscretion and fastened a massive, red codpiece onto his already forward crotch. The entire theatre lost it. It was wonderful. Afterwards, Perlman’s physical and verbal humor kept us laughing, but that sublime moment set the tone for the rest of the evening.

After completing his performance as Bisognosi, Perlman shuffled through other characters and masks to the audience’s constant amusement: macho captains trying to seduce women in the audience; a self-absorbed pedant meditating in the vein of Hamlet on how all in things are either tubi (tubes) or not tubi; and crazy servants trying to get something from the world with the minimum amount of investment.

With all their limitations, these stock characters were not flat, but fully developed human beings whose personality resonated through their various foibles. The evening was both enlightening and hilarious, all through the work one man, an audience and a whole lot of masks.