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Friday, March 21,2014

Snakes on a stage

REVIEW: MSU’s ‘The Serpent Lady’

by Paul Wozniak
Farruscad (Casey James) pleads with Cherestani (Adia Alli). Photo by Chris Haug.

Friday, March 21 — For students of the MSU Department of Theatre, performing and producing “The Serpent Lady” looks like a blast. Translated and adapted from Carlo Gozzi’s original work by Valentina Denzel and production director Daniel Smith, the fantastical show features elaborate costumes and masks while providing plenty of space for actors to improvise on the spot. For audiences, “The Serpent Lady” is like watching a slowly moving tornado filled with kinetic energy that inches toward its final destination.

As the program explains, “The Serpent Lady” is a “commedia dell’arte fairy tale” which essentially means a comedy including fairies and magic drawing inspiration from ancient myths and poetry. It’s also part meta-theater with actors playing actors who use the audience itself as part of the set. The central narrative of a king searching for his queen in a magical land while being tested by god-like fairies feels secondary to this production. Each act trudges through over a dozen scenes, each with its own mini-story that often only peripherally touches on the main story. In many ways, “The Serpent Lady” shares similarities with popular Shakespeare comedies like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where the sometimes dark and absurd creations of magical creatures ultimately serve to teach a larger moral.

But the focus of the director and actors (and the primary source of audience enjoyment) comes from the small moments. Encouraged to try new voices and movements, actors do just that. Like Robin Williams in a manic phase, actors transform instantaneously from stately kings to spoiled princesses and back. These moments don’t always gel and often flop, but that’s really the point of improvisation.

From an audience perspective, these moments of hilarity do more to pad the show’s run time without coalescing into a larger dramatic arc. Like a band of musicians attempting to solo simultaneously, the actors often feel like they’re competing for the limelight instead of working as an ensemble to create a consistent rhythm.

While audiences may not feel the rhythm, they may feel the actors. Apart from a handful of chairs on raised platforms, the bulk of the audience is spread throughout the center of Studio 60 like islands of decorative rugs and pillows. The fašade of a gypsy caravan illuminated with mini-lanterns serves as the stage while adding to the rustic ambiance of the play. Story and consistency aside, this intimate setup is perfect for experiencing the passion of these infectious actors.

“The Serpent Lady”
Michigan State University Department of Theatre
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Pre-show discussion at 1:15 p.m. Sunday
Studio 60 Theatre, MSU Auditorium
542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing
(800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com


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