An Astonishing Debut: Helsinki West’s “I Gelosi”

There’s a new kid in town.  Watch out.

Helsinki West, born recently in a tiny Glendale studio, is presenting their first show in a warehouse beneath the 5 freeway in Burbank.
If this is how they’re gonna play, LA theatre will never be the same.

I Gelosi is the story of an early commedia dell’arte troupe, one of the first to include women.  David Bridel’s script is swift and spare, filled with humor and pathos, peopled by the genre’s sharply drawn characters and clear arcs.

i gelosi 1

But it’s the work of the ensemble that will rip the breath out of your chest, pull the laughter from your belly, and wring the tears from your eyes.

First, there’s the setting.  With simple drapes, parabolic sheets and candles, Alex Choate and impresaria Marjo-Riikka Makela invoke a cathedral of art.  Ellen Burr’s music, blending simple percussion and flute in period and original pieces, holds the sacred space.

At one end of the playing area are worn trunks and a small plank platform; a traveling troupe lives here. At the other, atop a gilded dais, sit a  pair of imposing ornate thrones. The game’s afoot.

Enter the actors. Francesco (Sean McConaghy) is a dynamic dreamer,  Giulio (David Ryer) a stolid fellow and Simone (Joseph Santos) a willowy naif. Guess who writes the plays, who counts the day’s coins, and who performs in a dress. But their company is struggling.

Enter Isabella (Milly Sanders) a woman and poet born, who both writes and acts. Soon, the galvanized troupe attracts the lovesick, stage-struck Orazio (Victor Manso), the femme fatale Vittoria (Kristyn Chalker), the shrewd maid Sylvia (Jessee Foudray) — and the patronage of the Duke of Mantua (Richard Garnett).

The magnificent seven meet their fate in Paris, performing for the fool-king Charles IX (Choate) and his virago mother, Queen Regent Catherine de’ Medici (Ann Levin).  Unraveled in the denouement — at tragic cost — are knotty questions of love and art that have dogged the players from the start.

This is a homage (or femmage?) to commedia, so all the characters seem familiar, as do the polar dilemmas with which they struggle. But the stunning achievement of this troupe is that these are also real people.

Orazio the innamorato, in Manso’s masterful hands,  makes us chuckle (as we should) at his defenseless heart — yet he becomes the play’s emotional center, to whom we look because we trust his intuitive nature and guileless honesty.  Chalker’s Vittoria is not only a temptress but a talented, ambitious woman whose brassy heart is broken on the wheel of fate. Santos colors the simple, appetite-driven Simone with a yearning soul that touches our own.

Down the list, each actor works this kind of wonder with a stock character.  (Except the Queen, who’s stuck with delivering the tale’s evil energies.) And we end our brief time among them having been led through a full range of emotions, by a story whose artifice glows with the internal fire of art.

I Gelosi and this remarkable ensemble are the fruits of Makela’s Chekhov Studio International.  One thing’s certain: Watering the cardboard cutouts of commedia with the close character and scene study actors usually give Chekhov yields a bountiful harvest.

And in the warehouse space under the freeway, the whole company together — with Amanda Maciel Antunes’ simple yet evocative costumes, Choate’s bold lighting, and Tim Reese’s subtle projections — brings a daring vision into glorious reality.

Want to see “theatre magic”? I Gelosi offers an example you won’t forget. Experience it — whatever you must do to your schedule.

And welcome Helsinki West to our town.  These are artists who will, without doubt, continue to amaze us — and challenge us to do our best in turn.
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I Gelosi, by David Bridel, directed by Marjo-Riikka Makela.
Presented by Helsinki West, at Six01 Studio, 630 S. Flower St., Burbank.

Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 8:00, through May 31.

Tickets: <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1433462>

[Note: Roles are double- and triple-cast; these are the players I got to see.]