Mask for more: Brooklyn group brings 16th century comedy to modern day

The commedia company
Laugh out loud: Actors in the Commedia Company will perform Renaissance-style sketches using the style’s signature masks at Cloud City on Jan. 25–27.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

It’s a Renaissance renaissance!

A Williamsburg comedy troupe is updating 16th century Italian theater for the modern era! During three performances at Williamsburg’s Cloud City on Jan. 25–27, members of the Commedia Company will don masks to perform improvised skits that often involve the audience. Just like the centuries-old commedia dell’arte theater form, every show has an unpredictable edge, said the group’s founder. 

“Something I find super exciting about the form is that you have three dimensions: the characters, the actors, and the audience,” said Virginia Scott, who formed the group in 2017. 

The Renaissance art form, which swept Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, starred actors wearing half-masks to represent different archetypes, including the lusty old man, the cowardly braggart, the wise woman, or the buffoonish servant — broad characters familiar to viewers of “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy,” said Scott. 

The shows involve a lot of improvisation, so each player can put their own spin on a mask’s character, said Scott. 

“The way that one particular actor will play the mask will be different,” she said.

The Commedia Company recreates the historic style of the theater, but uses modern storylines — instead of arranged marriages, it might feature online dating — and each performance revolves around a certain theme, including “the internet” or “Christmas.” 

The group also improvises more than original dell’arte actors did, Scott noted.

“We don’t know exactly what they were doing, but they definitely did a lot more plot than we do,” she said. “I’m just personally, as an artist, not super interested in plot.” 

Instead of a set script, the actors use the audience to build the story, asking questions or redirecting a scene based on crowd reactions, Scott said. 

“We’re always playing directly to the audience,” she said. “For each new show, we do 20 hours of rehearsal only.”

Scott, an experienced dell’arte director and teacher, founded the Commedia Company with colleagues and students, and the group has since grown to 10 members, who perform four shows each year. Scott said she hopes to make performances much more regular in 2021. 

“I’m hoping to build the audience over the next year to where we can support a new show every week,” she said.

The Commedia Company at Cloud City [85 N. First St. between Wythe Avenue and Berry Street in Williamsburg, www.cloudcity.nyc]. Jan. 25–27 at 7 pm. $12 ($10 in advance).

The commedia company
Two-faced: Players in the Commedia Company wear half-masks while performing improvisational skits.Photo by Caroline Ourso