Madness of Isabella
Actors Kimberly Sheamon (left) and Rob Petrarca (right) in performance. (Photo by Jillian Torre)

by Mallika Rao

From Nov. 7 through Nov. 9, Mount Saint Mary College’s (MSMC) theatre hosted its latest production, The Madness of Isabella. The show was an improvised production that explored themes of love, greed, revenge, and above all else, comedy.

Playing on the tradition of the Italian “commedia dell’arte”­—as previously explored in MSMC’s 2010 production of Flavio BetrayedThe Madness of Isabella takes place in Genoa, Italy, and delves into the lives of the stock characters commonly found in the commedia dell’arte.

Examples of stock characters include the trickster Arlecchino (alumni Joyce Hausermann), the greedy father Pantalone (graduate student Alex Mayer), and bumbling Doctor Gratiano (freshman Joe Certa).

Students were given only a plotline with no actual dialogue nor staging.  Leading lady and senior, Kimberly Sheamon, found the idea of improvising the entire dialogue “a little bit” challenging, “but once you get used to it, it comes naturally.” Her on-stage love interest and fellow senior, Rob Petrarca, found the challenge of improvisation slightly easier, given his expertise in the field as a result of joining MSMC’s resident improve troupe, Improvocative.

Another challenge was performing with an incredibly close audience. Sheamon says, “it’s definitely intimidating. You can see everyone’s reactions.” Petrarca, however, differed in opinion once again, proudly claiming he has no shame when it comes to performing in front of an audience.

The performance revived many Renaissance conventions, infusing them with modern pop culture references ranging from YouTube memes (“Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife,” “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That,” and “What Does the Fox Say?”), to Miley Cyrus lyrics (“I came in like a wrecking ball.”). There was even a reference to Zumba in the latter half of the play.

Senior Liliana Peralta-Zapata played on her knowledge of the Spanish language with her role as the servant Pedrolino.

The Renaissance conventions that do get poked fun at include religion (Isabella, a Muslim, marries the Christian Oratio), gender (Oratio must get married otherwise he must oil his father’s “sack” of money, while Isabella has gone mad over her rejection in patriarchal society), and literary tropes (Petrarchan poetry, love triangles).

Director James Phillips commented on the process, saying there is “almost nothing to begin the process with.”

“We deviated like crazy,” he said,  “but that’s okay.”

His daughter, Langley, made her fourth consecutive MSMC Theatre cameo in the show in which rose from the audience and badmouthed Sheamon’s Isabella. The 7-year-old proudly claims, “it makes me happy,” but admits “it’s sometimes scary.”

Keep an eye out for MSMC theatre’s spring production of Almost, Maine, a compilation of short vignettes highlighting unconventional love stories in a world of complex and often darker characters.