With Don Pasquale, Donizetti gives us champagne for music and so the comic style of the acting must match this excellence or it would be like mixing bubbles with beer! I had the privilege of working with a master of comedy, Marcel Marceau. At his school in Paris, Marceau had us study the various styles of comedy from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte to his own comic inspirations: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and other actors of le Cinéma Muet. It was their virtuosity, their “musicality” in style that struck Marceau. Their comic dignity represented the champagne of Comedy as opposed to the stylistic beer of Slapstick or Vaudeville. Marceau also drilled us in the details of his own comic masterpieces, working the specificity, style, and that elusive skill, Comic Timing.
Highlights of touring with Marceau came on the off-nights in a studio improvising together. He put me on stage and tossed out a theme and I would “play.” He gave me specific stylistic directions: “make the same action tragic, now comic, now dark comedy, now Baroque comedy, now Melodrama….” To increase the subtlety he would say, “Now find the tragic in the comic” or “find the comic in the tragic.” I learned that I could change the context or even the meaning simply by changing where and when to “take” to the audience. These silent asides would make or break the comedy and could generate cascades of laugher. I love honoring his influence by inserting flowers from his bouquet into a show now and then, so we have inserted a few into this production—riffing on Bip Commits Suicide, The Mask Maker, and The Pickpocket’s Nightmare.
We wanted to create an environment that would allow the virtuosity of comedy to work hand in hand with the virtuoso vocal work of Opera. When the design team and I settled on SUNSET BOULEVARD as the inspiration for this production, the collaboration and creativity flowed. Having singers play Hollywood actors who are playing roles opened up a world of comic possibilities. I have always been amazed with the “theatre magic” of the costume changes during a Japanese Kabuki performance—a Samurai Warrior turns into a Fox right before your eyes, which is not only part of the fun, it is a playful way for us to portray in a theatre the special effects we expect in a movie. Like a Busby Berkeley chorus becoming a kaleidoscope of human action, even our set transforms one large element into a completely different object in another scene.
On the first day of rehearsal I presented the singers with Marceau’s Comic Timing Exercise—a specific and yet simple sequence of movements that allows comedy to flourish. Armed with this technique, we got to work! Although he is no longer with us, Marceau’s style and his love of style live on in those of us who worked with him directly. I am privileged to pass it along to the next generation of performers including actors, movement artists, and opera singers.