How do Marco Polo, Romeo and Giulietta, Donizetti, and Carlo Boso get to share a playbill? Frédéric Rey has the secret.

As long as there is life, my dear friends, laughter will be the weapon of we who mock it even as we struggle to understand it.” – George Herman’s famous quote, summing up the essence of commedia dell’arte, was never more pertinent than in our difficult, complex times. And laughter is what the annual Festival de Commedia dell’Arte de Nice has plenty in store of during its third edition from June 9 through 18. A multi-location programme rich in virtual travel and positive emotions: seven plays showcase the theatrical discipline’s depth and breadth, and an exhibition of theatre masks from different cultures provides historic context. And the cherry on top: a workshop with Carlo Boso, master of all masters of commedia dell’arte.

Masks, improvisation, physical comedy, and an archetypal set of characters are the codices for this most original and entertaining form of theatre. Created in Italy in the early 16th century as the first theatre of professional players for an audience of commoners, it has influenced writers like Shakespeare and Molière, and has left its traces on theatre from opera to vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, sit-coms, and improv comedy. It does not claim to be theatre for the cultural elite, but rather, in the disguise of humour, holds up a mirror to society, reflecting the good, bad, and evil. The 2017 festival, curated by Frédéric Rey, director of Théâtre de la Semeuse and Centre Culturel de la Providence, represents this spirit well.

Festival de Commedia Dell'arte de Nice poster

Among the unmissable highlights:

June 9: Le Merveilleux Voyage de Marco Polo
Centre Culturel de la Providence

The opening play whisks us away to the other end of the world. Following in the footsteps of the great Venetian explorer Marco Polo, we relive his journey from La Serenissima via Persia, Tibet and on to China, where he is in the service of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. Humour, adventures, shamanism, dialogue between cultures, and tolerance are at the heart of his hilarious comedy, which does not shy away from a nod or three at today’s society.

June 10: Romeo e Giulietta
Centre Culturel de la Providence

If this title invokes Shakespeare’s immortal romcom, well, you are right, of sorts. Only that here, it is a play within a play. Having barely escaped the Inquisition in medieval Europe, Girolamo and Julius, two friends, take up the not very honourable trade of comedians. Good fortune seems to strike as Henri III, future king of France, invites them to play Romeo and Juliet. They are getting ready for their one shot at fame when fate intervenes in the form courtesan Veronica… A wildly comical cloak and dagger show, packed with music and acrobatics, performed in Italian by Stivalaccio Teatro.

June 11: Rita, Ou Le Mari Battu
Théâtre National de Nice

An offsite tonight at the TNN: In Donizetti’s rarely performed opera, tyrannical Rita (Amélie Robins, soprano) keeps an inn with her husband Peppe (Xavier Flabat, tenor), who is gentle as a lamb. One day Gaspar (Mickael Guedj, baritone) shows up. Turns out the former couple is still officially married, and Gaspard has come to annul his marriage contract. But Peppe spots his chance to free himself from his abusive wife’s clutches and will do anything to seize it….

June 17 and 18: Carlo Boso Master Class
Théâtre de la Semeuse

Carlo Boso is to commedia dell’arte what Roger Federer is to tennis – a living legend, with an almost 40 year international career and 2,000 shows under his belt. Frédéric Rey, who studied under the maestrissimo, somehow managed to persuade him to hold a workshop at La Semeuse. In this two day master class Carlo Boso explains the use and symbolism of masks in commedia dell’arte. They always represent the same characters – quintessential figures in this kind of theatre with clearly defined roles and tasks: Harlequin, Zanni, Pantalone, Sorceress, Captain Matamaros, Brighella, the Doctor, Pulcinella, Scaramouche, the Lovers and Colombine – all recognizable by their masks (in some cases, the absence of one), and the colour of their costumes.

Rate: €60
Info & inscription: +33 4 93 80 34 12

June 9 – 18: Mask Exhibition
Centre Culturel de la Providence

Masks have always played a role in civilizations around the world, as objects of ritual initiation, in parades, at funerals or in theater. They hide, they deceive, they disguise, they transform an appearance. Masks are therefore a tool for metamorphosis, a revelation of the subconscious. The masks in this display provide a representative overview of time, history, and styles.

Festival de Commedia Dell'arte de Nice mask expo

There is of course much more, from improv’ to puppets, so be sure to check out the full festival programme.

A lover and connoisseur of commedia dell’arte, and an excellent comedian and stage director himself, Frédéric Rey is the founder and initiator of the festival. He discovered his love for theatre during his law studies, and soon traded the bar for the stage. In 2011 he founded La Semeuse, the resident commedia dell’arte company that has since made a name for itself throughout France. Among their signature plays, Caterina Segurana, invariably one of the most popular shows in any season. Recently, Frédéric Rey created La Bussola, an international, multilingual company whose actors play in French, Italian, Spanish, and English all in the same play. Their much-applauded first creation “Commedia in fretta” premiered in Nice earlier this year before touring Rome, Barcelona, and Madrid.

The crowning grand finale of yet another great theatre season in Nice, and absolutely not to be missed!

C’est lorsqu’il parle en son nom que l’homme est le moins lui-même, donnez-lui un masque et il vous dira la verité.” — Oscar Wilde


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All images courtesy Festival de Commedia dell’Arte de Nice

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