Dazzling 'Decameron'

Rogue triumphs with local playwright Patrick Baliani's superb new version of an Italian classic

The Decameron is one of the masterpieces of Italian literature. Written in the 14th century by Giovanni Boccaccio, the narrative tells of seven women and three men who have fled the bubonic plague that is devastating Florence. Ensconced in an abandoned villa, they pass the time telling stories—100 of them altogether. The title refers to the 10 days they take to spin their tales.

The Rogue Theatre has taken on a new adaptation of The Decameron by Tucson playwright Patrick Baliani. The Rogue's productions always feature a high level of craftsmanship—and the challenge of condensing such a sprawling work into a single evening of theater has drawn out the best work from each person involved.

Baliani has done a superb job of capturing the spirit of the original. Selecting just 10 tales from the 100, he conveys them in language that is easy to understand while still carrying an air of antiquity.

The script bubbles joyfully from story to story, occasionally fracturing just enough to remind us of the theatricality of what we're seeing, or that the Black Death looms beyond the gates. It is only late in the second act that the work begins to bog down slightly.

Harlan Hokin leads the musical pre-show, doing his usual fine work of digging up musical artifacts that open a window into the time or atmosphere of the play. Here, however, the music takes on an extra burst of life as the cast comes out to sing a swirling, polyphonic gem of a song about catching a fish. That energy then builds with a rousing circle dance, choreographed by UA dance professor emeritus John Wilson. Like a good overture, this pre-show creates a joyous, earthy energy that helps propel the play that follows.

As the play begins, characters begin to arrive at the deserted villa, exploring its corners and scavenging for wine. The production features an ensemble of 10 actors, no "leading" characters and unfamiliar Italian names, and it's initially difficult to get a sense of what the story will be. Yet each performer creates an instantly identifiable persona through his or her physicality, manner of speaking and interaction with others.

Dour Rosaria (Rosanne Couston) is not amused by the flirtatious Amalia and Dioneo, played by Angela Horchem and Nic Adams. Young widow Elena (Laura Lippman) and the richly dressed scholar Rinieri (David Morden) glare daggers at each other, while Cynthia Meier as Pampinea, a former abbess, automatically refers to all the others as her children.

The play takes off once the stories begin to be told. The tales range from humorous to tragic, and their characters span all of humanity, from pious nobles to licentious nuns.

As each story begins, the teller conscripts other members of the ensemble to play the supporting roles. Lidia, a young widow played by Jill Baker, hands out masks, while stuttering Natan (David Greenwood) transforms himself into a nobleman through speech and posture alone. These shifts are enhanced by Clint Bryson's perfectly executed lighting.

This is the finest mask work that I have seen at The Rogue. The performers disappear into their false faces, using body language to create characters both larger than life and wholly recognizable. The masks themselves are a gallery of fine craftsmanship. On loan from the University of California at Santa Cruz Theater Arts Department, they range from commedia del arte caricatures—all buck teeth, boils and sausage noses—to shimmering Asian beauties.

Doubling as costume designer, Meier helps to develop the characters clearly. Alibech (Patty Gallagher) is dressed in an orange headscarf and intricate, metallic fabric, elements that not only suggest a Muslim background, but visually make her an exotic outsider. Otherworldly Lisabetta (Rachel Lacy) wears pink and purple, while the others are in natural colors; the bright hues instantly paint her as simple, childlike and out of place.

Even the smallest details of the production are evocative. Bryson's leaf-dappled lighting washes the set even before the lights are dimmed in the audience, as if inviting us to remain aware of the theatricality of what we are about to see. Joseph McGrath, who also directs, has created a set that features a tall wooden platform accessible by a spiral staircase, a rustic ladder and simple wooden pegs. It's as though the set itself were a collection of different stories.

(It should be noted that, while seating is arranged on three sides of the stage, much of the action seems directed primarily toward the center section.)

Theatergoers should be aware that the tales of The Decameron are not for children. I have heard it said that low comedy reminds us that we are mammals—that we eat, poop, fart and have sex—and these characters, in a world where death always looms close, make no pretense otherwise. The obscene and the profane, and laughter and death dance their way through each of these stories.

Much like Hokin's pre-show music, the storytelling of 14th-century Italy doesn't follow the cadences our modern ears have come to expect. The tales don't always have happy endings or discernible morals (in either sense of the word), and the play is at its best when simply spinning its tales, without any justification.

To make the piece accessible to modern audiences—or to create an overarching dramatic structure—Baliani uses the "Pot of Basil" story as a through-line. By itself, the story, the Ophelia-like Lisabetta's account of love and murder, is compelling. As a framing device, it falls flat.

The problem is that Lisabetta is not actively pursuing something, and her plight does not connect with the other characters. Thus, her increasingly frequent interruptions, rather than ratcheting up the tension, are annoying. And her offering of basil leaves to the other characters in a kind of communion ritual is a potent symbol without an antecedent. This means that, right in the home stretch, as the action should be reaching its climax, tedium starts to creep in.

But this is a fairly minor complaint in what is otherwise a feast of theatrical splendors. A toast to director McGrath, playwright Baliani and the entire team for a tale well told.