This article originally appeared in the winter 2013 Harker Quarterly.
The works featured in this year’s middle school fall production provided both modern and classic examples of the influence of commedia dell’arte, a style of Italian theater that rose to prominence in the mid-16th century. Notable for its heavy use of improvisation, commedia dell’arte is credited with the proliferation of what is now known as slapstick comedy and was a major influence on playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere, whose “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” was one of the plays brought to the Blackford Theater on Nov. 15.
In “Doctor,” adapted from its original French version by Aurand Harris, a prodigal husband named Sgnarelle (Matthew Hajjar, grade 7) is punished for his spendthrift ways by his wife, Martine, played by Sameep Mangat, grade 8. Fed up with her husband’s penchant for spending extravagantly on food and drink, Martine tells the servants of a rich family in need of a doctor that Sgnarelle is a doctor held in high regard. They in turn coerce him into serving as a doctor for the wealthy family, which results in a series of amusing and occasionally dangerous situations.
The second play, “Bamboozled!” written by Michael Brill in 1985, is a story of mischief and deception, as the opportunistic Brighella (Sophia Angus, grade 7) devises a plot that involves tricking the old and greedy Pantalone (Akhil Arun, grade 8) into thinking he has killed the young Harlequin (Ellie Lang-Ree, grade 7) and having Pantalone pay Brighella to stay quiet and get rid of the very-much-alive Harlequin’s “body.” Another plot involving an arranged marriage between Pantalone and the beautiful Columbine (Maya Kumar, grade 8) sees Brighella attempt to switch the bride to be with Harlequin, thereby allowing Columbine to run away with her lover, Leandro, and simultaneously making Brighella and Harlequin the benefactors of the dowry from Columbine’s ward. Both plays were directed by middle school performing arts teacher Mary Ellen Agnew-Place, who was crucial in bringing out wonderful performances from the students, particularly since the material was uncommon for actors their age. Harker performing arts department veteran Paul Vallerga again designed the set, and also acted as technical director and lighting designer. Carol Clever designed the vibrant costumes and props, while Brian Larsen was the play’s production manager.