Tim Robbins speaks truth to power in his latest play

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Improvised sketch comedy is all the rage these days, but its roots may stretch as far back as 16th century Italy, to commedia dell'arte.

Known for its biting social critiques, the subversive theater form, which translates to "comedy of the profession" or "comedy of art," is getting new attention as the subject of "Harlequino: On to Freedom," the latest production at the Actor's Gang Theater in Culver City.

The show was written and directed by actor Tim Robbins, who prepared for the task by diving into historical research. He also wrote an original song for the production, "Saturnalia."

Commedia dell'arte "was popular entertainment, performed on public squares and streets by roving bands of actors, acrobats and musicians," Robbins told Morning Edition host Alex Cohen.

Robbins said he found no scripts for the first 80 years of the art form. The earliest productions may have been entirely improvised, or perhaps they were so controversial that scripts were never written down because the actors feared being prosecuted.

Robbins found records of a Duke Gonzaga from Mantua who wanted to kill three actors after a performance: "This and other evidence of violence that occurred to commedia dell'arte troupes suggests there was something in the content of the plays that was more dangerous, perhaps telling truth to power." That would also help explain why these troupes never stayed in one town for too long.

Robbins sees parallels with the present.

"The other question we ask with this play is: What is it to be free? How free are we when we're saddled with debt from age of 20? ... How free are representatives to represent us when they are beholden to oil corporations and defense contractors?"

Throughout his career, Robbins said he has tried to incorporate issues into his writing and directing. "But I've always done it with the idea that the audience must be respected," he said. "An audience traveled to see you to be entertained. It isn't that they don't want to have questions at the end of the play or be enlightened or moved by something, but laughter is essential in the telling of the story."

"Harlequino" runs through May 20. You can pick up tickets and read more about the show at the Actor's Gang Theater website.

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