Unmasking the skills involved in Odyssey Theatre’ s Amorous Servant

David Warburton as Ottavio and Suzanne Roberts Smith as Beatrice in a scene from Odyssey Theatre's The Amorous Servant.

Accustomed as we are to reading faces for cues to character and intention, you’d think the fixed expression of masked actors would put them at a disadvantage in portraying the people they are depicting.

Not so, at least not if there’s a good actor working behind a good mask.

Masks “are definitely revealing … they define the central element of a character,” says Jerrard Smith, who’s designed the half-face masks for Odyssey Theatre’s upcoming production of The Amorous Servant. Odyssey is performing Carlo Goldoni’s rarely seen 1752 commedia dell’arte play in Strathcona Park.

“It’s a trick for the actor not to rely so much on their face, to be aware of their entire body,” says Smith. “Most people design masks so a slight tilt of the head or different angle will change the look and character of the mask. And the actors can still use their mouth and eyes.”

Smith, who’s worked with Odyssey for the past three summers, says a mask is fitted not just to an individual actor’s face but to the performer’s interpretation of his or her character. The latter is especially important because “Commedia dell’arte has a lot of strong character elements.”

Featured in this scene are Christopher Allen as Florindo, Lise Cormier as Corallina and Tiffany Martin as Rosaura.

Each mask takes about a week to build, says Smith, who’s been involved in theatre design since 1980. The building process, which begins with casting the actor’s face in a plaster bandage and extends through sculpting and painting stages, is exacting. Storage of the masks is also demanding, as perspiration or rain – factors in outdoor summer performances – can penetrate the mask, softening it so it molds even more closely to an actor’s face. That’s a good thing that stops being a good thing if the mask also shifts shape when stored.

The story the masks will help tell in Strathcona Park revolves around Corallina, a clever young maid in a wealthy, corrupt household. A son of the household has been wrongly disinherited, and Corallina, dedicated to him, plays cupid to return the son to his rightful place and bring peace and honour back to the household. As usual in commedia dell’arte, the servants are considerably brighter than their betters, a cause for much hilarity in this play and a boon to Corallina in her efforts to restore balance to her master’s household.

This being a commedia dell’arte play and one that’s produced by Odyssey, the story is told with much physicality. “My speciality is physical theatre,” says director Attila Clemann, lamenting the fact that such theatre is too little seen these days. “I think audiences crave it. There’s a tendency for artists to get deeply psychological and political, and I’m not like that.”

Clemann, who first performed with Odyssey 15 years ago and has been a cast member in three recent productions, also relishes working with masks. “In outdoor theatre, there’s no ceiling or walls, so there’s nothing to focus the audience in except the physicality and the (masks).” However, because each plane or angle in a mask can catch our attention, Clemann says he wanted a clean design that cleaves to a classical shape and doesn’t distract attention from the narrative. “Once the mask is on, it’s about the body.”

He also had to work closely with his actors, some of whom are new to Odyssey this year, to get them used to performing in mask. That includes the actor looking at the audience while addressing another character who’s also on stage and then turning toward the scene partner just as the line finishes. For an actor unaccustomed to such technique, “It feels odd because it feels like you’re not connecting with your scene partner.” The connection, he explains, is actually through the audience, who is the recipient of the speaker’s words and the intermediary between the scene partners.

The Amorous Servant, with its strong female protagonist in the person of Corallina and its universal themes of greed, treachery, honour and love, will appeal to a 21st century sensibility, says Clemann. “It’s interesting to see that from a text that’s 300 years old … audiences are going to see a play that has a contemporary feel to it.”

The Amorous Servant
Odyssey Theatre
Where: Strathcona Park, Sandy Hill, Ottawa
When: July 20 to Aug. 20.
Tickets and more information: odysseytheatre.ca, 613-232-8407

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.