Tarradiddle masters the arte of comedy improvisation

The Italian term commedia dell'arte does not translate to "Hit me with a pig's bladder until I fall facedown in mud," though it often takes that form. It means "comedy of craft," shortened from commedia dell'arte all' improvviso - comedy of the craft of improvisation.

What it means locally is an annual touring play that sets school audiences rocking, cash registers at Children's Theatre of Charlotte ringing and the four tight-knit members of Tarradiddle Players whirling.

"The Commedia Princess and the Pea" opens at ImaginOn on Friday (or reopens, after a one-night stand in October and voyaging through elementary schools). The show adapts Hans Christian Andersen's tale about a finicky queen who puts her son's prospective fiancées through tough tests.

Director Steven Ivey thus continues a tradition going back 18 years at Children's Theatre and 460 years to Rome, where roving actors brought stock characters to life for adults who might not know how to sign their names. (Still the case with kindergartners.)

In the old days, characters were often lecherous or corrupt or flirtatious. Tarradiddle softens those edges for kids. But the stock types remain: officious Rosetta, capricious Arlecchino, bombastic Puccino and resourceful Colombina. Feminists take note: Here the men make blunders and create chaos, while sensible women patiently restore harmony.

"As Colombina, the one who runs everything, I love that it's a woman who keeps thing in order," says Leslie Ann Giles, now in her fifth year with Tarradiddle. "At the same time, she gets to be a princess. So you have the pretty, idyllic image but also get to be strong."

The four performers monitor each other throughout the audience, like a string quartet fine-tuning its sound. They also watch audiences carefully.

"This is the opposite of the traditional 'fourth wall' in theater," she says. "We get dressed in front of the audience, we go in and out of character during the play. We'll hear kids say something and respond to it.

"It's a matter of feeling your audience, knowing which ones you can continue to interact with and which ones are being taken out of the (moment). We're supposed to seem like four actors making things up, but we do follow the scripts."

Those scripts usually come from Lane Riosley, who wrote "Pea" with Rebecca Byars. Ivey says the Texas-based Riosley now writes with Tarradiddle in mind, sometimes specifically for the four actors in this ensemble, and lets them tinker with her words and report audience reactions. (Riosley may see the show this weekend.)

"It's fun for performers, because women get to play men and vice versa," Ivey says. "At the same time, you can never totally disappear into a character. You are always pretending to be a commedia actor who is pretending to be a character. So it's twice removed from your own personality."

These simple stories don't grapple with real issues of evil or lust. In "Robin Hood," the sheriff of Nottingham will be sent offstage in a huff rather than speared by a rapier or pincushioned with arrows. As Ivey says, events are meant to suggest dysfunctional families.

Plays must be accessible to children of 5 and supply entertainment to adults of 50, who can savor the occasional in-jokes. The goofball in all of us can appreciate the broad comedy.

"Audiences don't know 'I Love Lucy' or the Marx Brothers today, but the slapstick is the same," says Ivey. "It's harder than it looks: Trained actors have to let go of everything they've been taught and rely entirely on the timing of the jokes. But it always works."