Commedia dell’arte is an old form of Italian theater that, in its purest form, features actors wearing masks, and making improvised movements that are super animated. It often features stock characters such as Pulcinella, Colombina, and Arlecchino (Harlequin). Commedia dell’arte is prominently displayed in Leoncavallo’s verismo opera Pagliacci, the story of a man whose wife is unfaithful to him, and it features a commedia dell’arte play-within-a-play that is (supposedly) a comedy about a man who is cuckolded by his wife. The play turns into a tragedy when the husband confronts his wife on stage in an attempt to find out who her illicit real-life lover is. For a while the audience thinks the husband’s anger is all part of the play. Finally they realize that make-believe has morphed into life with tragic consequences. Here is a scene from the play-within-a-play section of Pagliacci featuring Plácido Domingo and Teresa Stratas.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in a 1967 movie version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that featured a very physical scent when Petruchio begins his wooing of Katherina. Granted, it was a “lively” scene, but you’ve probably never seen anything like the commedia dell’arte-influenced 1976 version of The Taming of the Shrew from San Francisco that featured Marc Singer as Petruchio and Fredi Olster as Katherina. This clip from the production begins when Petruchio tells Katherina’s father to send Katherina to him. The choreography that follows is priceless.
These versions of Pagliacci and The Taming of the Shrew are still available on DVD, and are well worth watching.