One of Italy’s most prominent and prolific playwrights, Carlo Goldoni may best be known to Australian theatregoers in recent years from the Bell Shakespeare Company’s tremendously successful, twice-revived production of his The Servant of Two Masters, in an adaptation by Nick Enright and Ron Blair. The 2008 VCA Drama Company’s presentation of another Goldoni classic, The Fan (Il ventaglio, 1765), may not reach those dizzying heights of hilarity, but it is a very amusing night at the theatre nonetheless.
The simplicity of using just “The Fan” as its title tellingly signals from the outset how Goldoni has constructed an entire plot that ostensibly revolves around a single intrinsically unimportant object, an example of what Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin”. All the many twist and turns of the ridiculous story stem from the exchange and misplacement of this mundane item which various characters pursue for different reasons and to which they ascribe differing significance. In this instance, the fan in question is one intended for a young noblewoman who drops and breaks her original fan (perhaps accidentally, perhaps on purpose) when saying goodbye to one of her suitors, who then rushes off to buy a replacement.
However, the confusion starts when the replacement fan starts to get passed through an endless succession of different individuals, causing more and more trouble at each step as various characters overhear, spy or otherwise misconstrue the motives and meanings behind its passage. As a result, to use an appropriate cliché, “hilarity ensues”.
This theme of misinterpretation is central to the play, as are those of jealousy, gossip and meddling. The action is all staged on an open town plaza surrounded by several shop fronts lining the square with the noble house at the apex. The various colourful characters come in and out of their shops and residences to natter, feud, cajole and cut deals. Everyone in this small community has their nose in each others’ business, and no-one seems to like their neighbours terribly much.
Aside from the farcical details of the plot as the fan continues to change hands leaving all manner of chaos in its wake, the story also hinges on two love triangles, one involving the nobles, the other commoners. While the fan in question comes from the elite, its passage causes the story to intersect with the somewhat more prominent working class characters, who are also generally the funnier. The brash, temperamental Giannina wishes to accept Crespino the cobbler’s proposal of marriage, but is also beset by the unwelcome attentions of Coronato the loathsome innkeeper, and seems to be in no great rush to get married in any case. Into the mix comes gossiping shopkeepers, servants, brothers, waiters and a pompous Count, all of whom work as grist to the mill of rampant confusion.
Ably directed by Gary Down, this production is a relatively traditional treatment of this kind of light comedy of errors, with a single standing set and period costumes, and with the actors all wearing rouged whiteface and performing with voluble theatricality and more than a little slapstick. However, undoubtedly the most immediately striking thing about this production is the fact that everyone in the cast speak their lines in exaggeratedly comical faux-Italian accents, ala They’re a Weird Mob. In fact (to give you an idea of the tone), they even drop in a reference to the (in)famous Joe Dolce song when at one point a character angrily retorts “Ah, shaddap you face.
This use of stereotyped pronunciation for all of the play’s dialogue is quite a surprising choice, especially given that it could be considered rather un-PC by some, although it certainly doesn’t come across as intentionally racist. It appears to be simply an attempt to spice up the rather simplistic language of the translated play with an exaggerated verbal quality to match the requisitely ham-tacular performance style. Still, it is initially rather jarring (especially given the varied range of competence with the accent displayed by the large cast) and leads one to wonder “are they actually going to do the whole show like this?”. Personally, it worked fine once you got used to it, but it is very much a matter of taste, and one can’t help but wonder what first or second-generation Italian immigrants would think of it.
The cast of VCA 3rd Years is a strong ensemble of uniformly talented comedic performers, although particular mention goes to the “low-born” triangle, with Sarah Ogden as the endearingly truculent Giannina, Johnny Carr as Crespino the sympathetic cobbler (who gets a very memorable exit that finishes off the first act), and especially the hilarious Stefan Bramble as the grotesque innkeeper Coronato, who demonstrates a real talent for this kind of broad farce. Also worthy of mention is Andrew Dunn as the pining noble Evaristo, who manages to get a good balance of the qualities needed for both a romantic lead and an absurd comedic character.
This lively production of Goldoni’s The Fan may not be tremendously memorable, but it is nevertheless a very enjoyable, raucous piece of comedy.
VCA Drama and VCA Production present
Two Classic Comedies
by Carlo Goldoni ~ directed by Gary Down
Dates/times: Tuesday 20 – Saturday 24; Monday 26 – Wednesday 28 May at 7.30pm ~ Saturday 24 May at 2pm
Venue: Space 28
The Feigned Inconstancy
by Pierre Marivaux ~ directed by David Wicks
Dates/times: Tuesday 20 – Saturday 24; Monday 26 – Wednesday 28 May at 8pm ~ Saturday 24 May at 2pm
Cost: $20 Full / $12 Concession
Location: VCA Drama, 28 Dodds Street, Southbank
Information: 03 9685 9225