Go Deeper

OMBELICO Mask Ensemble on Commedia, Laughter, and Taking Over the World

Posted August 15th, 2011

“Sometimes it definitely feels like theater and live performance is going to die. Because of technology, the internet, movies, television, whatever,” says Brendon Gawel, co-artistic director of OMBELICO Mask Ensemble. Despite these fears, he’s doing his best to make sure this apocalyptic possibility never becomes a reality. “John and I joke around that what we’re trying to do is take over the world with commedia.”

Since 2009, Brendon and his partner in crime, John Bellomo, have been bringing a unique brand of performance to the Philadelphia theater scene: commedia dell’arte. He cites Cirque du Soleil’s success with circus as the goal that he has for OMBELICO and commedia. Cirque took the old art form of circus, modernized it, and brought it back to wild success–“I imagine, sometimes, that we could do the same thing for commedia.” He laughs. “Basically, we just want to be the next Cirque du Soleil. No biggie.”

After the jump: what is commedia? And a Kickstarter video preview.

OMBELICO’s latest work, Run Grunt Sing: An Open-Air Theatric, will premiere this year in Northern Liberties for the 2011 Philly Fringe. The show promises to deliver an evening of comedy through the broad sweeps of physical gesture, and, of course, the vibrant character masks for which commedia is so well known.

But what is commedia dell’arte, exactly, and what sets it apart from any other form of comedic theater? Its roots go back to Italy, where it was originally developed over 500 years ago. Performed in half-masks, all of the shows are partially improvised; the actors explore different improv choices founded on the basic framework for a narrative arc. Audience interaction informs the show. Stereotypes of commonplace Renaissance figures populate every story; doctors, lovers, soldiers, servants and merchants, all of whom are defined by the cartoonish masks that the actors wear. The masks set the precedent for exaggeration, and each character’s ridiculous behavior serves to heighten the humor of each piece.

Brendon likens commedia performances to modern-day sitcoms. “[Each show is] a lot like an episode of the Simpsons,” he explains. “The characters don’t grow or progress [over the course of the show].” Commedia isn’t out to deliver morals so much as it is meant to make us laugh.

OMBELICO knows its history and rises to the challenge of commedia‘s tradition. “We’re [here] to bring the party,” Brendon says, excited. Set outdoors, Run Grunt Sing takes advantage of its location to play up the broad gestures of physical comedy. Fast-paced and accompanied by live music, the show unfolds to tell a story that’s common in commedia: a pair of young lovers is unable to pursue their relationship thanks to the greed of their fathers and the lust or the indolence of other characters.

In the simplest sense, Run Grunt Sing is a slice of life blown up to ludicrous proportions. “[It’s] about the basic human needs of love, lust, money, sleep—and about our reckless pursuit of them,” Brendon explains. And by making such common needs a hyperbolic spectacle, Run Grunt Sing gives us the chance to laugh at the absurdity of our existence.

Sounds like the party has been brought.

To top it all off, Run Grunt Sing is a free performance–a great perk for an outdoor show. “I like the fact that people can just walk up to the show and sit down and enjoy it…that people who can’t afford to pay $25 for the ticket to see a different performance can still come to see theater,” Brendon says.

So what does OMBELICO want their audience to get out of Run Grunt Sing (aside from a night of side-splitting laughter, of course)? “I hope they connect to the universe,” Brendon says with a grin. He’s not kidding entirely, though. “I do hope that people connect to the universality of the human experience. We’ve all been [where the characters are]—we’ve all been stupid in love, we’ve all felt like servants.” If people can see that reflected in the characters and laugh at it and enjoy it, that’s what matters.

Brendon hopes that commedia‘s uniqueness will sustain its growth in the U.S., even in the face of modern competition. Television, movies, and even other forms of theater are all very one-sided; the actors perform and the audience watches. “What we’re trying to do with commedia and OMBELICO is offer something that you can’t get anywhere else.”

–Logan Tiberi-Warner

Photo courtesy of Boeckle Family.