Zanni — my Alter Ego
It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not logical.
Why someone who adores words and the way they mix and mingle and change meaning in juxtaposition with each other and are so finely nuanced would suddenly fall in love with a retrograde low-brow art form like Commedia dell’Arte, Commedia for short.
Nonetheless, it’s happening.
I’ve been not so secretly taking clowning classes at Stagebridge — a performing arts school for adults 50 and over.
And this summer our delightful clown imp teacher, Shara Tonn, taught us Commedia characters before she heads up to Blue Lake, California to attend Dell’arte International School of Physical Theater — the premier Commedia school in the country.
It turns out the Bay Area is a sort of clown mecca. Jeff Razz started the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco and my teacher is a grad thereof.
The Pickle Family Circus started here and gave the world one-man wonders like Geoff Hoyle who was Zazu in the Broadway production of The Lion King.
And TV and Broadway actor/clown Bill Irwin who remounted a much-heralded Commedia version of Moliere’s Les Fourberies de Scapin, called Scappin that re-introduced audiences to Commedia. He also starred with Steve Martin and Robin Williams in a Lincoln Center production of Waiting for Godot.
Speaking of the late comic-clown Robin Williams, he played Patch Adams in the film by that name, and the movie was filmed right here in Oakland even though Patch’s Gesundheit! Institute is in West Virginia.
In the tradition of Patch Adams, we have medical clowns going into hospitals and generating the best medicine of laughter for old and young alike.
Keep in mind that clowning is an old art form going back to the Roman days and the clown archetype is universal.
One of the endearing tropes of clowns is they can speak truth to power and get away with it. Whereas you and I might pay with our heads.
Commedia and its legacy
Italian Commedia grew in response to and became the way the workers and peasants made fun of the landlords, church, and ruling classes, creating stock characters that have endured over time.
The servants — Pulcinella, Arlecchino, and Zanni — end up being wise beyond their station while the elites — El Capitano, Il Dottore, and Pantalone end up duped and outwitted in spite of their high status.
No wonder Commedia is such a good fit for political satire as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and others are famous for.
Lots of Shakespeare’s plays have a fool or court jester character who can speak truth to power and navigate us viewers through the white water rapids of the fast-paced plot. Comic relief characters like the gravedigger in Hamlet or the dog catcher in Much Ado hark back to Commedia.
Heck, the Marx Brothers borrow heavily from Commedia. My take is Groucho plays characters similar to El Dottore and El Capitano. Chico is Arlecchino incarnate. And Harpo, adorable, sex and food-crazed Harpo is a true Zanni.
Who the heck is Zanni?
Zanni is my alter ego. I didn’t pick him, he picked me. He took over my body and gave my brain a break. He’s the lowest of the low-status characters, a country bumpkin and full-on id. Food. Farts. And Fucks. That’s his life and his world.
And playing him is so much fun!!!! Bird-like movements, faux Italian gibberish, insatiable curiosity, and bottomless appetites. The hedonistic glutton. Silly, silly stuffs in our little playlets known as lazzi.
Little skit-length bits that were created originally to wake up snoozing audiences and interrupt the melodrama with the kind of business you see John Cleese and company do in BBC’s Fawlty Towers. Or Roberto Benigni’s Guido in Life is Beautiful.
The only explanation I can come up with is astrological. I share a birthday with John and Roberto. We’re kindred spirits, brothers, and sisters in the Holy Order of Zany Zannis. We don’t have birds lighting on the palms of our hands like St. Francis, but we manage to keep our audiences awake and laughing.
And that’s worth losing sleep over.