Lisa Robins

Review – Actor’s Gang Harlequino

Actor’s Gang Harlequino:  On to Freedom dares to use art to speak truth to authority

by Lisa Robins    

(Note: This play has closed it’s April-May 2017 run)

Harlequino: On to Freedom, an original musical written and directed by Actors’ Gang founder and artistic director Tim Robbins, displays the power of artists to reveal and ultimately dismantle corrupt authority.

Thinly veiled references to our own current political situation are embedded in a classic Italian tale of lust, love and liberation.

Commedia Dell Arte might be 500 years old, but its character archetypes engaged in the battle for freedom and still resonate today.

The musical opens with an ensemble number featuring 4 musicians playing guitar, percussion, accordion, keyboards, mandolin and bass. Performed less like a musical theatre showcasing of voices and more for the emotional power and meaning of the words, the dreamy original song with lyrics by Tim Robbins and music by David Robbins, along with the Renaissance art projections on the back and side walls immediately draw the audience into the world of 16th century Italy. Classic masks created by Erhard Stiefel, and costumes by Olivia Courtin round out our belief in the era.

A Commedia Dell Arte lecture delivered by 2 buffoon like academics, Dr. Preamble and Dr. Afterword, (fully explored by expert comedians Bob Turton and Will McFadden), combine professorial authority, wordplay and slapstick as they attempt to control the event.

Interrupted by rogue actor/slave/servant Harlequino, speaking the truth to set the record straight, the plot morphs into a classic Commedia situation replete with stock characters and situations.
Harlequino’s master, Pantalone, a power tripping rich, slimy control freak with a whiny Trump-like voice orders his servant to find the long lost object of his lust, the widow Madame Brancantini. (Ironically, the masterful actor, Pierre Adeli, originally created this character voice for Tartuffe, a previous role with Actors’ Gang.) Pantalone has taken the business world by storm, which is his justification for societal control. He embodies greed, lust and pride, resulting in pathetic impotence.

Before the journey can begin “subservient” Harlequino must reassure authority that he knows his place… “I am nothing to your everything…a flea on your anus”. Joshua R. Lamont as the title character courageously embodies the heart of soul of his character through his voice, physicality and moment to moment reactions to every step of his odyssey.

It’s very important to everyone that Harlequino is not his slave, but his servant, however it’s clear that for this courageous and wily character, a rebellious heart equals freedom. We meet the passionate, open hearted lovers (the charming Lee Margaret Hanson and Adam Jefferis), the quick-witted, astute maid, Columbina, (fully realized by the engaging Sabra Williams), Madame Brancantini (who just so happened to have had a previous affair with Harlequino) confidently played by Mary Eileen O’Donnell, the Inquisidator, even an Elk among other wonderful characters.
The interplay between the expert analyzers who attempt to control the theatre and the actors playing out the life of the play continues in a battle for the heart and soul of the Commedia.

History lessons such as the sugar trade slavery triangle which began during the same time as the emergence of Commedia are woven into the action

Harlequino is sex farce vs. social commentary; Order vs. chaos

Robbins urges us to remember the value of art as a way to reflect the true underbelly of our society today. And artists as the courageous leaders in refusing to follow the “script” prescribed by those who have claimed power.

“By your ignorance and violence you are enslaved…we are free”

The performances were uniformly solid from the seasoned troupe consisting of Julia Finch, Dora Kiss, Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Stephanie Pinnock, Cihan Sahin, Guebri VanOver, Miroslav Vejnovic, Sabra Williams, Paulette Zubatta, and Adam Bennett, their archetypes of humanity perfectly exaggerated in Commedia dell Arte style

But it’s the frenzied dance by Joshua Lamont’s Harlequino climaxing in an explosion of truth that emotionally reached me. Followed by the devastating final moments of the play when the actors take control of their destiny.

Important viewing, the U.S. premier of Harlequino, part of the Actor’s Gang 2017 Spring Season of Justice, encourages us to embrace the power of art to reveal truth to those who attempt to control society.

Thursday nights are pay what you can and feature a post-show conversation.

We were lucky enough to converse with Tim Robbins and special guest Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”, star of Tickling Giants, a documentary following his choice to quit his life as a heart surgeon to create and star in Al-Bernameg a satirical news program, from 2011 to 2014. His courage to do political comedy in Egypt was the perfect contemporary equivalent to Harlequino’s journey to freedom.

The stimulating and lengthy conversation explored the dangers of a society which trivializes artists, the fine art of social satire (making fun of people but not power, and how to take action against authority who threaten to clamp down on our rights. The educational and stimulating give and take left us with the question of how to do more than be a social media conduit for the shameful actions taken by our leaders and inspired us take action to make a difference in our own communities.

U.S. Premier of Harlequino: On to Freedom A Musical Celebration of the Rebel Slave
Written and directed by Tim Robbins
at The Actors’ Gang Theatre 9070 Venice Blvd. Culver City, Ca. 90232
Saturday March 18-Sunday May 20, 2017  THIS SHOW HAS CLOSED or by phone at 310-838-4264