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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pjerrot Speaks. By John von Daler

                  #Tivoli in Copenhagen is one of the few places where you can see genuine "#Commedia dell'arte" in Northern Europe. Every evening these half-hour "dumb shows" are performed at least twice in the old amusement park. For many decades these performances were accompanied by an orchestra playing in the pit in front of the old two-towered pagoda theater. Lately the shows have been accompanied by taped music - not nearly as much fun as the good, old days.

                If you had been in Tivoli in the early 1980's you could possibly have seen me either playing or conducting in front of the theater. I loved the tradition with its long line of #Pjerrots, #Harlequins and #Columbines. Each character was "owned" by a couple of actors, ballet dancers or clowns. They played their various roles every day and through time put their own kind of patina on the character. When they started to approach retirement age, they passed on their performance secrets to the person who would take over after them. In this way the characters remained fresh and personal, yet traditional at the same time. Now they have taped the performances, so new actors copy the older version and the whole thing becomes less alive, less inventive.
                Pjerrot probably remains the most well known of the personna on stage. Like his companions he really is not supposed to speak with the exception of the occasional "Ow!" when someone plays a trick on him. But in my day we had a "talking" Pjerrot. The audience just never heard him.
                It was during the European Soccer Championships. As often is the case, the best games were played just when we had to perform, so the orchestra always whined and complained on the way to the pit. But Pjerrot did what he could to help us.
                Pjerrot's face is white as limestone and his mouth is red, a huge, permanent smile that surrounds and engulfs the actor's real mouth so that from the audience it hardly can be seen. He also has big black eyebrows and a slanted white Napoleon hat.
                In the course of the play Pjerrot is often chased from the back to the front of the stage. Sometimes he falls or is knocked down right by the edge of the orchestra pit.
                During the championships our funny and thoughtful Pjerrot would stand in the wings watching the soccer game until his cue to enter. Then he would fly and flop his way around the stage as we played furiously. When he landed at our end of the stage, the lips in the middle of his big, red smile moved just slightly and the conductor could hear him say, "1-0 to Denmark" and then Pjerrot would be off again. Then the conductor would bend over, his arms still keeping the beat, and he would repeat the score for the thankful orchestra.
                Some might say that the old silent tradition had in this case been violated. But when you think of it, Pjerrot has always been a rascal, as much off stage as on. It was probably not the first time since the renaissance that he mouthed a few well-chosen words to his fellow performers out of the hearing of his audience.

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