Odyssey Theatre brings commedia dell’arte to life


Among the bounty of summer entertainments Ottawa enjoyed this season was the exciting production of The Raven (Il Corvo). This classic commedia dell’arte play celebrated the Odyssey Theatre’s 15th anniversary of outdoor theatre. Staged in the gorgeous Strathcona park, The Raven ran for one month over July and August to the delight of live theater enthusiasts.

The Raven is an adaptation of the commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi. Commedia dell’arte is a traditional form of Italian theatre and Carlo Gozzi was a master of this genre, writing nearly a dozen plays in the 18th century. Commedia dell’arte plays are based on traditional Italian stories. The actors would take the basic plot and improvise, developing choreography to suit each character and scene. This form of theatre is remarkable for its high theatricality, elaborate costumes and masks, and exuberant physical comedy, all of which makes it a big hit with children and adults alike. Performing commedia dell’arte is therefore, very demanding for the actors. Wearing the masks poses certain challenges for them. “First of all, on a day like this, you will sweat buckets,” complained Paul Griffin who played Tartaglia, “and because the mask covers half your face, it means that whatever expression you give you have to articulate almost completely through your body and your voice.”

Laurie Steven, the Artistic Director of Odyssey Theatre, and Lib Spry, an award-winning Ottawa writer, are responsible for this adaptation of the play.

“We started off looking at an English translation and then we went back to the original Italian even though neither of us speak it. We did a word for word dictionary search to work out what it meant. Then each of us wrote different scenes and we edited it together,” told Spry of the painstaking translation process.

Not only was the language a challenge; Spry and Steven also had to render this 18th century play relevant for modern audiences. “We had to find the right voice for each of the characters so that it reflected the emotion and the story, this wonderful medieval fairy story, and at the same time, was very accessible for people today.”

These challenges did not seem to dampen Lib Spry’s enthusiasm for the project. “It was truly exciting to do. Gozzi has a wonderful sense of the use of words and he knows how to be dramatic in all of the best senses as well as to be very funny, which is what you’re looking for in a good commedia show.”

The outdoor performances were a delightful way to spend warm summer evenings with the family and we look forward to next year’s Odyssey Theater production.