The huffing and puffing sounds of Scapino dragging an enormous chest out onto the stage is the first thing audiences hear.
It’s an unusual introduction for a play, yet perfect for director Richard Lemin’s production of A Company of Wayward Saints by George Herman, running through Feb. 19 at Jewel Box Theatre.
Within a few moments, the performance has firmly established its conversational, playfully irreverent, and direct address-based tone.
Centering around a company of commedia dell’arte performers—commedians—the play features numerous miniature scenes that the commedians use to try to impress a wealthy duke so he’ll pay for their trip home.
Commedia dell-arte is a form of improvisational theatre—featuring stock characters such as the young lovers, the soldier, and the doctor—that is mostly associated with the renaissance.
Yet Jewel Box Theatre’s A Company of Wayward Saints seems set in a time outside of time, with dialogue sounding almost Shakespearean one moment and dropping modern-isms like “metropolitan substitution for a haystack” the next—which in the skillful hands of the cast, becomes an inside joke shared with their audience.
These commedians are comprised of Don Taylor as the company manager Harlequin, Denise Hughes as Harlequin’s flirtatious wife Colombine, Keegan Zimmerman as Harlequin’s mentee Scapino, Daniel E. Willsey as the sad merchant Pantalone, Allyson Rose as the diva Ruffiana, Chip Chappelle as the supercilious Dottore, John C. Arnold as the militaristic Capitano, and Maddie Loury and Kaelin McGowan as the (mostly) sweet lovers Isabella and Tristano, respectively.
The task they are given from the unseen duke to earn their trip home is deceptively simple: perform a play about “the history of man.”
Along the way, Jewel Box Theatre’s cast displays an impressive array not only of humor, but of stillness and depth.
Meanwhile, their commedian characters can’t seem to find a way to perform without upstaging or interrupting one another, despite Harlequin’s efforts to keep them together—something they’ll have to overcome if they ever want to get home.
“I just thought that was a very interesting theme, not just for the theatrical community here in Oklahoma City, but for, you know, everybody,” Lemin said. “If we all learned how to work together, we can really get things done.”
A Company of Wayward Saints is the first performance of Jewel Box Theatre’s 2023 season and the first performance that Lemin is overseeing as a co-managing director of Jewel Box alongside Deborah Franklin.
The launch of the 2023 theatre season may surprise some readers, since the iconically domed First Christian Church building that formerly housed Jewel Box Theatre was abruptly demolished in 2022.
What the community may not have realized is that “the theatre” (and the congregation) moved three years ago to a complex on the east side of the property and their new show forms a joyous reminder of the theatre’s ongoing vitality despite the recent demolition.
A Company of Wayward Saints performance times include: 8 p.m. Feb. 9-11; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 12; 8 p.m. Feb. 16-18; and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 19.