'Gianni Schicchi' uses farce to probe nature of sin

June 17, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

"Gianni Schicchi" has all the elements of good comedy: wit, timing and an analysis of the consequences of crime that probes the complexity of sin as it relates to man and God.

Set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance, the offbeat farce mixes pratfalls with philosophy as it tells the story of the clever peasant who, at great risk to his soul, helps a scheming family regain its wealth.

"Gianni Schicchi" opens tonight in Howard Community College's Theatre Outback, presented by the Rep Stage Company, Columbia's professional acting company in residence at HCC.

When the patriarch of the Donati family dies and leaves his

estate to local monks, his greedy relatives turn to Gianni Schicchi, a farmer who has a reputation for doling out good advice.

The frustrated family includes the overbearing matron Zita; the lusty wench Nella, who is married to the scholarly Gherardo but ** is carrying on an affair with the handsome Marco; the elderly drunk Betto; and the foolish but romantic Rinuccio, who is in love with Schicchi's virtuous daughter, Lauretta.

Schicchi suggests that, since no one else knows of Donati's death and he closely resembles Donati, he should impersonate the patriarch and rewrite the will.

The relatives agree to the plan, but each secretly tries to cut a deal with Schicchi in hopes of inheriting the bulk of the estate.

In the end, Schicchi dupes them all. Though he doesn't want the for tune for himself, he nonetheless pays a heavy price for his deceit.

The prologue and epilogue lead the audience through hell, as Virgil the Poet explains to Dante, who is taking notes to bring back to humanity about crime and punishment.

And here we find Schicchi, whose sin is deemed worse than murder, since murder is a crime against the body, but forgery is a crime against the intellect and spirit.

"Gianni Schicchi" is rooted in the classics. It was adapted by Beltsville writer John Morogiello from Puccini's "Il Trittico," a one-act comic opera based on Dante's "Inferno," the first part of "The Divine Comedy."

The 29-year-old playwright pulled the scenes of hell out of "Inferno."

"I was surprised to see that," said Mr. Morogiello. "In contemporary times, a white-collar criminal is sent to a minimum-security prison, as opposed to the murderer. But in 'The Divine Comedy,' it is the opposite. I was interested in that and applied it to the opera."

Mr. Morogiello updated the story, incorporating contemporary dialogue. He also fleshed out the characters and plot that focused on Gianni and his daughter.

"Everyone else was the chorus," Mr. Morogiello said. "I gave everyone a character, put in a love triangle and cut three characters. The opera is famous for an aria -- it's beautiful, dramatic -- but I cut it. The show just doesn't pack the same emotional punch; it's a comedy."

From another song, he developed the quick-paced and funny bribery scene in which relatives pop out of beds, balconies and closets.

To design the moves and timing a farce demands, Mr. Morogiello made drawings of the sets with various doors that the characters run in and out of, and cutouts of the characters "so I would know where people would be," he said.

The first draft was written in November 1991 in three weeks. A year later, it was developed at the Belmont Italian-American Playhouse on Off, Off Broadway in New York.

Six months later, in March 1993, it premiered at the Sacred Clown Theater in New Rochelle, N.Y.

The writer, also an actor, was then commuting between New York and Maryland to perform in HCC's "The Art of Dining."

He has also performed for the college's productions of "Noises Off," The Glass Menagerie," "The Foreigner" and "Tartuffe." In "Gianni Schicchi," he plays the nebbish scholar.

"This is the fourth version of the ["Gianni"] draft," said Mr. Morogiello whose newest play, "The Answer," was developed by the Rep Stage Theater and will be produced at the Belmont Playhouse in November.

"Kasi [Campbell, the director] is taking a lighter approach than the other productions. She figured the audience would appreciate the hitting over the head more than the heavy philosophical discussions. But you have to get used to it as a playwright that each production will be different."

The play also incorporates the Commedia Del'Arte device of broad, physical, slapstick comedy that was developed in the Middle Ages.

"Everything is very exaggerated and posed, with lots of asides," explained Ms. Campbell.

The format leans on stock characters who are "broader, cartoon-like, very exaggerated, such as the greedy wife or drunken clown . . . so when people would see them onstage, they would recognize them right away," she said.

"Punch and Judy were a derivative. That's why I made Gianni a puppet in hell. I thought the prologue and epilogue needed a comic touch; it would keep it light."

To choreograph the production's physical humor, two of the company's equity actors, Dave Dossey ("Gianni") and Loretto McNally ("Zita"), who are students of Commedia Del'Arte, got the contract.

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