The connection between the title of this year's Mad River Festival summer show Ruzzante Comes Home from the War and Dell'Arte International may seem a bit of a stretch, but digging under the surface uncovers a timeless tribute to theatre of place.
The original version of this play was written in the Commedia dell'Arte style by Ruzzante Beolco in 1529 and tells the story of country soldiers returning home. The Dell'Arte team took this premise to veterans and asked for their humorous coming-home stories and the result is an achingly funny yet poignant tale.
In true commedia style, the main players are masked into physical anonymity but their individual characters shine through their words and actions. Ruzzante (a delightfully befuddled, sex-starved and lovelorn Pratik Motwani) and his fellow soldiers, the weird-word-addicted Stupino (played with laconic humor and quiet desperation by Lucius Robinson) and frustrated entrepreneur Brighella (Alyssa Hughlett in a masterful performance as a woman who's forgotten what it means to be female) find themselves unexpectedly discharged from the army.
Their commanding officer, Capitano Rodriego Pantalona (the wonderful James Peck, channeling every caricature of a military officer you can think of), is no help teaching them how to be civilians — after all, he's never been one. He does, however, have some of the best lines. I particularly like "God created war so Americans could learn geography," and "Veni, vidi, Vichy — that's French for I came, I saw, I ran away."
So our heroes find themselves alone, disoriented and in possession of a grand total of $6. They are also free. But what is freedom? They've been at war so long, they know no other way of life. There's a general feeling they should want to go home. But what is home? And where is it? Stupino recommends they coddiwomple (yes, it is a real word meaning to travel in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination — perfect for this situation) until they get there. Lacking other ideas, they head to Ruzzante's hazily remembered home, a hamlet by the river where he says sunshine meets sea air, there's no fighting, no drugs, no homeless people, no "tweakers" — and "no carpetbaggers from New Jersey messing with the local public radio station." Yes, we are back in Humboldt County.
The trio's first task on arrival, to be appropriately attired, is taken care of by a trio of harmonizing Humboldt honeys (Rebecca Finney, Emilia Björk Perkins and Veenadari Lakshika). Then they're off to the plaza, expecting a welcoming crowd. But all they find is Ruzzante's parents (Peck, doing his now-familiar pantomime dame schtick, and the inimitable Donald Forrest in a fetching bathrobe), who don't even recognize their own son.
Once that little problem is resolved, we learn that what's really driving Ruzzante is a long-ago promise he made to return to his long-ago love Gnua (a sharp-tongued, magnificently vocalized performance from Alexandra Blouin). But much time has passed and Gnua has moved on — primarily to a life of raucous and raunchy fun with local Lothario and would-be dandy Rod (quick-change artist Peck again, sporting a sparkling codpiece in a fetching shade of lilac). She, too, has forgotten Ruzzante but issues him with a challenge to win her back by giving her what she wants. Unfortunately, she neglects to tell him what that is.
Dazed and confused, he heads to the Logger Bar to seek advice from his father and grandfather (Michael Fields, reuniting with Forrest for another side-splitting turn from Blue Lake's longest-running comedy duo). Predictably, nothing helpful comes of this encounter and neither Stupino nor Brighella, despite her chromosomal advantage, can come up with any ideas either.
As the trio tries to find a solution to Ruzzante's impossible challenge, they unpack many of their own challenges — the gaps that remain for all too many veterans between the life of comradeship and order in the army and the messy civilian life that they're supposed to simply merge back into, as if nothing ever happened. They are home but they don't know how to be here.
Michael Fields directs the challenging subject matter sensitively, balancing humor and pathos, and is ably assisted by Roman Sanchez, who also contributes a deadpan cameo performance as the deliverer of good news, bad news and hula hoops. Lynnie M Horrigan's costumes are magnificent, the excellent lighting design is by Michael Foster and Timmy Gray handles musical direction and sound design. The band (Marla Joy, Tim Randles, Mike Labole and Jeff Kelley) create a wonderful atmosphere that follows the story arc and provides the obligatory singalong opportunities for the audience.
Ruzzante Comes Home from the War is, like all good commedia, a mashup of joy and despair, humanity and hostility, that will make you laugh. And think. Maybe cry a little. And laugh again. Because, as we all know, laughter is the best medicine.
Dell'Arte's Ruzzante Comes Home from the War plays at the Rooney Amphitheatre Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through July 1 (except Thursday, June 21). Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
The Mad River Festival rolls forward on Thursday, June 20 at 8 p.m. in the Dell'Arte Amphitheatre with Barrio Caleidoscopio, about a man with a legion of fears on the daunting mission of going out for a loaf of bread. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
Dell'Arte's Family Series brings Halouksh Tales on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m., with a pair of shadow plays created with Wiyot youth. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
The intense When I Die, Leave the Balcony Open returns to Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre on Wednesday, June 27 at 8 p.m. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
The saucy Red Light in Blue Lake adult cabaret is back Friday, June 29 and Saturday, June 30 at 10:30 p.m. at the Carlo Theatre. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.