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ON STAGE: Ombelico offers historic Italian theater in contemporary times at Philly Fringe Festival

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STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON 
For Digital First Media

Philadelphia’s annual Fringe Festival is a chance for theater companies and performers of many types to try new things and take risks. Ombelico Mask Ensemble USA is doing just that with “Like a Bat Out of Hades.”
The show is a collaboration with West Chester University (WCU) and Ombelico USA’s sister company, Ombelico Mask Ensemble Italia. The show embraces the theatrical traditions of Italy, combining Commedia dell’Arte (which utilizes masks), Greek tragedy, puppetry, and classical cello music.
Ombelico (which means bellybutton in Italian) began bringing its free comic theater to outdoor spaces in Philadelphia in 2007. Co-Artistic Directors Brendon Gawel and John Bellomo, who teaches at WCU, have created six original shows. Calabrian native Renato Arcuri, a student of Bellomo, founded Ombelico Mask Ensemble Italia in 2014 to further the companies’ goals of an international artistic exchange. They “keep a faithful eye to the past” while reinvigorating Commedia and exploring its relevance for a modern audience, they say.

Ombelico ensemble. Photo by Beatrice Canino

Ombelico ensemble.
Photo by Beatrice Canino

For this show, the company used “Alcestis” by Euripides as a launch point, but they changed some parts and added their own touches. They call it a tragi-comic work. Gawel said in a telephone interview that the show is fun. The story: a king makes a deal with the gods to live past his original death date, then to escape death all together, but only if he finds someone else to take his place. Chaos and hilarity then ensue.
The family-friendly show takes theater to a new level, Gawel thinks. It melds historical theater, puppetry, and more, which “feels like a richer experience,” he said.
He’s proud of it for another reason: he’s half-Italian.
“It’s part of my culture,” he said. “I learned about it, have taken workshops. I realized this 500-year-old theater still works.”
Why does it still work?
“It’s the same reason people want to do Shakespeare over and over again,” he said. “There’s something about understanding humanity and something universal through time.”
One of the reasons Bellomo enjoys this type of theater is that he can break the rules.
“Initially, when I was in undergrad as a young theater artist, I had a lot of classes about breaking traditions, but we weren’t learning what traditions we were breaking,” he said. “I wanted to study origins of theater so I could learn the traditions, then break them myself. After about 20 years of studying these things, I’m starting to break the rules.”
Commedia dell’Arte intrigues him because it “informs everything we do today,” he said. “From Moliere to modern vaudeville and the Marx Brothers – all of that has origins in Commedia dell’Arte.”
At this show, audiences can expect to laugh and also to be a part of the action.
“The origins of theater were that it was a community event,” Bellomo said. “There wasn’t separation between actor and audience. There was no fourth wall. The four walls surrounded everybody. It’s an event, not just a come-and-see show. People can expect to have a 3D experience.”
Gawel hopes that people will come out to enjoy, but mostly to try something new.
“You don’t see this very much. Who else does a show that’s partially scripted, partially improv?” he said. “It’s fun to do something that’s not usually done.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Like a Bat Out of Hades”
When: 6 p.m. Sept. 3-6, 10-11, and 13
Where: Liberty Lands Park, 926 N. American St., Philadelphia.
Admission: Free, but donations are appreciated.
Info.: Check www.fringearts.com or www.ombelicomask.org.

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