“What is it to be free?”
Muttered more than once in Harlequino: On To Freedom
, written by actor/director Tim Robbins’ and presented by his legendary company The Actors’ Gang, this question seems especially perplexing in light of the events of the past few weeks...
Harlequino: On To Freedom
is based around the tropes of Commedia dell’arte, a style of theater made popular in 16th century Italy and France, which often emphasizes the absurdity of the upper class and how those subservient to the wealthy often find themselves in predicaments based on the foolish actions of their masters. With actors shrouded in masks and heavy makeup, the piece tells the story of an itinerant group of actors that hijack a lecture and slide show on the Commedia dell’Arte. Jumping back and forth between 1530 and 2016, the play raises questions on history, power, and freedom — are these unassailable truths or merely matters of perspective?
The performance unfolds as if it were taking place in a town square, in a style that combines traditional with improvisational acting. A caveat: Although the Daguan Theatre was well utilized, at times it felt too large a space for this production; it was difficult for the actors to maintain a connection with the audience.
Having said that, due credit should be given to the cast. They use every element of their environment and incorporate it into their performance. There was an off moment during last night's show when a little kid ran out of the theater kicking and screaming, but the actor delivering his lines used that to build tension within the scene and wasn’t fazed by it in the slightest. Acting in commedia requires an incredible amount of energy to reach one’s goal in a scene and the cast were more than prepared for the challenge.
With an incredible cast of improvisers, The Actors’ Gang proves that even plays that look out of date and obsolete can be more cutting edge and challenging to our perceptions than what we blindly accept as new. Harlequino: On To Freedom
is a breath of fresh air in the world of international productions to come to China. It’s certainly not for everyone — it’s wild, unruly, and difficult at times — but at the same time there is something for anyone.
A line delivered by the title character lingers on: “The Servant is the Master when they write their own stories.”
'Harlequino: On To Freedom' in on nightly through to Sunday at the Himalayas Center. All details here.