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Newtown Playwright & Teacher Puts The World Premier Of 'Masks' On The Boards At Pomperaug



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Newtown Playwright & Teacher Puts

The World Premier Of ‘Masks’

On The Boards At Pomperaug

By John Voket

Sitting in during a recent rehearsal, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is more excited, the writer and director mounting his world premier, or the actors who will get to present his words and vision. No this isn’t the newest Broadway phenom prepping his posse of Equity talent at the Winter Garden, we’re talking about Newtowner Paul Doniger and his cast of Pomperaug High School thespians.

The local teacher, actor, playwright and director told The Newtown Bee in a recent interview that his world premier, Masks, is based on ideas that have been “floating around in his head for some time.

“I was in the process of searching for a fall production,” Mr Doniger said. As an English teacher and the theater program director for the Region 15 high school in Southbury, Mr Doniger is charged with researching and developing the theater offerings, which amount to one full-scale musical and three other non-musical productions within every two-year cycle.

Coming off the immense success of Anything Goes last spring, Mr Doniger was at that magical point where the script of his own play, a multi-layered romp in the classic Italian style of Commedia dell’Arte was near completion. At the same time, he was presented with what he describes as a highly talented cast of students chomping at the bit to depart from the standard dramas and comedies populating stages throughout the regions high school circuit.

So with the support of the Region 15 administration and his own fellow faculty members, Mr Doniger secured as much space as was available in Pomperaug’s black box theater, and concurrently launched auditions and the beginnings of technical specs.

“This is a true world premier, it’s never been shown before,” Mr Doniger said. “I was thinking to myself, it’s maybe now or never.”

The playwright had his first experiences on the stage as a high school student himself, switching to a music major in college with a focus on opera. Following his graduation, he helped establish the CSC Repertory Theater in 1968, where he performed in more than a dozen classic roles from  Banquo in Macbeth to The Samurai in Rashomon.

Additional acting experience came in film and television work, including roles in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan, Saturday Night Fever, Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, Bloodbrothers, and One Life To Live.

According to Mr Doniger, he always hoped to develop a work of Commedia dell’Arte for the modern stage. The style of theater has a long history and respected place in the history and development of Western Theatre.

“It’s origins are debated today, perhaps from the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus. Certainly the character of the braggart soldier in my play, Miles Gloriosus, has its origin there,” he said.

The stereotypical characters, comic plots and lazzi (comedy routines that can be easily inserted into any plot) are as recognizable and familiar to us today as they were 500 years or more ago.

“We see them in theater, film, and even popular television sitcoms like The Simpsons,” he said.

Performers in the comedies, which were improvised around prepared scenarios, included a series of stereotypical caricatures, such as Pantalone, Harlequin (a/k/a Arlecchino, who carries his favorite “weapon,” the slapstick), Colombina, the braggart soldier (Il Capitano), the incompetent but pompous doctor, various servants, and young lovers (inamorati).

The more clownish characters wore half-masks that distinguished some of their basic characteristics. Most of them are easily recognized today in classic and modern comedies. Molière, the great 17th Century French comic master, was clearly influenced by and used commedia characters and methods, as did Shakespeare – even when not in the comic mode: Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet is clearly influenced by Il Dottore, and Mercutio has much of the Miles Gloriosus braggadocio about him.

And of course, Romeo and Juliet are the inamorati.

“My play uses the Italian Comedy as its baseline,” Mr Doiger said. “There is an ensemble of characters who are both actors in a Renaissance Commedia troupe and a set of these stereotypical characters. The play moves through two days in the life of the company, including not only some performances of their commedia all’improviso, but also their backstage lives.”

The focus is on the conflicts between the masks that they wear — real or metaphorical — and the individuals underneath those masks. For example, Pierette, a young member of the company, whose now dead father was once its greatest attraction and its founder, is faced with a double dilemma; she’s in love with the newest member of the troupe, young Flavio who plays the inamorato, but he is not only a hopeless  flirt – he also doesn’t seem to know she is alive.

“On top of this, she has taken on her late father’s job of performing as the clown, Pierrot, a male role. Naturally, she struggles with the mask,” Mr Doniger explained.

There are big struggles for the whole company as well. Not only is young Flavio’s flirtatious nature causing tension in the company, but the financial security of the troupe is weak. Ruffina, the matriarchal leader of the company, and her husband, Scaramouche, must decide what to do to save the company from ruin.

But Scaramouche, whose popular star as Capitano Spavento has been fading behind his back, doesn’t have much of a head for business. He’s the artistic type and creates most of the scenarios, but he’s rather careless about money matters.

“The other members of the company are clearly worried about the future, but the situation comes to a head because of Flavio’s rakish nature,” Mr Doniger continued. “He’s been flirting recklessly with Sylvia, an inamorata, causing her brother Carlo, who is the popular clown, Arlecchino, no end of agitation and anger. The tension between these two men can’t lead to anything productive.”

Throughout all the tensions of the company, however, there are the commedia performances. The shows must go on in spite of the worries and the tensions. And they do go on.

The play opens in media res, a performance of a silly comedy about love and greed. Later, the company must rehearse another scenario, due to be performed the next day for the same crowd.

The shows do go on, but with some unexpected developments, and we end with a tour-de-force performance by Arlecchino, Pierrot, Capitano Spavento and Colombina. If this sounds a little too academic, fear not oh casual theatergoer.

“The show contains quite a few contemporary aspects even though it is rooted in Renaissance theater,” Mr Doniger said. “I really tried to write dialog that reflects modern speech and situations.”

Those hoping to catch the world premier of Masks should secure seats as quickly as possible, as there will only be about 80 audience members in each of the five performances, November 16 and 17 at 7:30 pm, November 18 at 2 pm, December 1 at 7:30 pm, and December 2 at 2 pm.

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