Actor Jonathan Samson is staging a performance that has its roots in 16th century Italy. He tells us what commedia dell’ arte is and how he’ll incorporate Bangkok, as well as elements of likay, into this original stage production, The Servant’s Secrets.

Do you think an old Italian theatre genre will resonate with local audiences?
In addition to my far more frequent performances of Thai comedy or English language stand-up comedy, I have performed a short commedia one-act as well as the one-man show Arlecchino Am Ravenous, both at Patravadi Theatre. The mixed audience (both Thais and foreigners) were immediately receptive to the characters and style of the commedia dell’arte. On one occasion a Thai audience member even tried to hand-feed Arlecchino a curried shrimp when she saw how hungry he was.

We heard you were going to incorporate elements of Likay. How does that work?
The commedia dell’arte, like likay, uses a particular set of traditional character archetypes. Each character has several possible plot functions, and a range of easily defined relationships to the other characters. The similar dynamics of these two cultural artforms have allowed me to take a character directly out of Thai likay, the “phra ek”, and with slight adaptation, plop him down right in the middle of a commedia scenario. Musical elements of likay will also be incorporated.

Was there also some modernization involved?
Commedia is a constantly developing art form, and is performed around the world with various degrees of adaptation or modernization. The central elements of commedia are universal; these are elements such as love, social rank, the master/servant or boss/employee relationship, and basic desires, such as for food, money, respect, or intimacy.

Is it a very physical art?
Definitely, not just with stunts, but also the unique physicality of each character and with an energy that has drawn comparisons to cartoons. While you won’t see the kind of acrobatics you might expect from circus clowns, these types of performers are nonetheless very close to commedia. Mime developed based largely on a French adaptation of the commedia character Pedrolino. Clown characters, similarly, are usually based on a commedia archetype. On the other hand, major playwrights such as Shakespeare, Moliere, and Pirandello were all influenced by commedia too. It’s like one happy family, and commedia is the common ancestor.