Michael Dunton, who plays Harlequin the Jester, the manager of troupe of actors in Company of Wayward Saints, tries on an unpainted mask to be used in the Moab Community Theater play to be performed in Star Hall later this month. [Photo courtesy Moab Community Theater]

Moab Community Theatre will open its fifth decade in Star Hall Feb. 28 with the comedy, “A Company of Wayward Saints” by George Herman. The cast of ten players will portray a troupe of actors performing the ancient and venerable Commedia dell’arte. They are far from home, stranded and broke. A wealthy theatre enthusiast has given them an opportunity to earn the funds to return home; but first, they must get their act together.

Director Shane Bartosh opens Moab Community Theatre’s Fortieth Anniversary Season with a play he has wanted to do for years. Through four decades, MCT has presented a wide range of live theatre to its hometown audience. This play will stretch that range back a few hundred years to the Italian Renaissance.

Commedia dell’arte was a fluid, improvisational type of performance that relied on stereotypical characters in their distinctive masks and colorful costumes to help tell the story. Usually it was performed at impromptu venues such as courtyards, public squares and markets. The traveling performers used minimal stage scenery, usually just a simple platform of some kind, and various hand props such as the infamous “slapstick,” which gave its name to the style of broad, physical humor performed.

There were really no mass media then, so the only way for a performer to become rich and famous was to go on the road. Commedia performers were the touring rock stars of the era.

Using references to local traditions, scandals, gossip and current news, as well as a selection of standard plot scenarios, well-rehearsed jokes called burle, and stock physical gags known as lazzi, the actors actually created a unique play for every performance, improvising the details moment to moment to suit each individual audience.

The characters wear individual masks that can be recognized from a distance. Each character embodies a mood, and always behaves in the same predictable ways that audiences will identify with and anticipate. There’s the boss, Harlequin the Jester, manager of the company, portrayed by Michael Dunton. Scapino the Acrobat, his understudy, will be played by Brendon Henderson.

Marc Horwitz is Pantalone the doddering Old Man; Pippa Thomas plays Dottore the Learned Scholar; and James Ferro will portray Capitano the blustery Soldier.

Edgar Fuentes is Tristano the fervent young Lover. Sarah Sidwell plays his innocent Sweetheart, Isabella. Star Kolb and Christy Williams will alternately portray Columbine the Nag. Mary Rice’s depiction of Ruffiana the Floozy rounds out the cast.