Sibling Ribaldry Explores Renaissance Improv
by Andrew Leland

Seniors Peter Cairns and Peter O’Leary and the rest of the cast and crew of Sibling Ribaldry have been working excruciatingly hard this semester raising money, building a gigantic wooden box, outfitting it with security cameras and microphones, designing audio software, experimenting with prosthetic make-up, improvising, writing, rehearsing, researching archaic forms of European theater and the theory of comedy and trying to marry two potentially hostile art forms. And they have one main goal in mind: entertaining the heck out of an Oberlin audience.
“We just want to please,” said Cairns. “We want everyone to be chuckling.”
The production will serve as an honors project in the Art Department for Cairns and an honors thesis in Theater for O’Leary. They wanted to fuse improvisational theater and film for their project but found that most attempts at fusion in the past were unconvincing. Instead of actually creating live, spontaneous film, “they seemed to only document improvisation,” O’Leary explained.
To circumvent this problem they devised The Box — a 20’ x 20’ x 8’ wooden box rigged with eight closed circuit security cameras, as well as four or five microphones. The images from these cameras feed into a video mixing board controlled by Cairns, who then edits the film live in front of the audience, selecting which of the eight feeds will be projected on a gigantic screen at any given time. The actors will also leave the box and perform in front of it on the stage, creating a dynamic tension between the live images and their live presence on stage.
As they were thinking about these strategies for their performance, the directors discovered Commedia del’Arte, the most popular form of entertainment for about seventy years in Renaissance Europe. Sibling Ribaldry is an unconventional, contemporary interpretation of this form. Like the Commedia, the performance is based on a conventional tragedy/farce plot structure — not unlike some of Shakespeare’s dramas — with largely improvised dialogue. Instead of wearing the traditional masks that the Commedia troupes wore, however, members of the cast will wear prosthetic features: bulbous noses, ears and the like.
Another feature of Commedia del’Arte that Sibling Ribaldry retains involves the audience. In Renaissance times the bawdy marketplace humor of the shows would excite male members of the audience, who succumbed to tomfoolery — women’s asses were pinched incessantly. This situation became so pronounced that women began to bring weapons to the performances in order to defend themselves. Eventually, the men had to be separated from the women in the audience. The shows this weekend in Hales will likewise take this precaution, dividing the audience by sex.

When a Commedia troupe came into town, the cast would spend a few days learning about the major landmarks and the hot topics under discussion in the region. They would then incorporate these topical elements into their performances, which appealed to their audience immensely. Sibling Ribaldry follows this tradition and as a result is highly Oberlin-specific. It takes place in a college town (whose name rhymes with “Oberlin”), and the central character is the college’s president. The audience will doubtless be titillated by countless in-jokes. For example, at one point a cast member shouts to the chancellor, “Die, president, die!”

Despite the rehearsed plot and bits of dialogue such as this one, the show will be, on the whole, completely improvised. Senior Dave Levin wrote a computer program that allows him to edit sound on the fly. Different characters have different sound-effects associated with them, and Levin will have lists of these ready to be played at any moment at the touch of a button.

The Commedia form incorporated popular culture of its day into its performances, and Sibling Ribaldry also interprets this practice for modern times: the tech crew mixes in clips from popular movies and pre-recorded scenes from around Oberlin onto the video projector; many characters also have top-40 hits for their theme songs. The show has a “star-studded” cast of students whose faces are recognizable from other campus theater productions and improv-comedy troupes, including Hallie Gnatovitch, Jim Williams, David Blatt, Michael Leibowitz, Duncan Gale, Graeme Hinde, Amy Flanagan and Paul Blanding, among many others.

All of the technical and conceptual complexity, then, comes from the attempt to combine the interactive spontaneity of improvised theater with the polished, digital veneer of film, and it isn’t intended to distract or provoke the audience with high-art intentions.
“Hopefully people will be interested by what we’re doing technically and how it works,” said O’Leary. “But I think at its core the complexities have the aim in mind of entertaining, and making people laugh.”

Catch Sibling Ribaldry in Hales Gymnasium Friday, Saturday and Sunday April 19, 20, 21 at 9 p.m.

April 19
April 26

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