The Panini Players serve sandwiches with a side of Renaissance-era improv


Daily file photo by Madison Smith

Actors perform in The Panini Player’s production of “Blood and Beans” in the fall. The group specializes in commedia dell’arte, a traditional Italian theatre form.

Nicole Markus, Copy Editor

While Northwestern’s mask mandate is ending, The Panini Players will keep theirs on.

The group performs commedia dell’arte circa the 18th century bubonic plague pandemic. The Italian theatre form combines comedy, improv, stock characters and masks reminiscent of plague doctors.

The Panini Players pair this traditional type of theatre with a not-so traditional twist: The quarterly show features a make-your-own panini bar.

“Our group is about 11 years old, and it’s just something that the founders thought would be cool,” Weinberg junior and Producer Haley Mailender said. “It’s so quirky of us, just good old-fashioned dinner and a show, you can’t beat it.”

On Saturday, The Panini Players hosted “Much Ado About Horses,” a unique take on the stock character Capitano. Communication junior and Artistic Director Barbara Burns said the character is traditionally a foreigner from Spain, but the group decided to change Capitano to characterize a stereotypical American cowboy.

The change is part of the group’s efforts to keep the traditional tropes of commedia dell’arte while adjusting the cultural aspects to be relatable to their audience.

“I really like the idea of modernizing Capitano to be a character that can be really familiar to us,” Burns said.

“Much Ado About Horses” is the group’s second show of the academic year and back in-person.

Burns said she was excited to bring the tradition back to the stage.

“Each character has a very specific walk and set of movements that you act with,” Mailender said. “Getting back after being on Zoom for a long time, it took a bit to get back in the habit and refresh our memories.”

Unlike typical improv groups, which make up their routines entirely on the spot, The Panini Players prepare for the show ahead of time.

This preparation includes assigning stock characters, structuring the basic plot and running through the show. Despite this, Burns said all the dialogue is improvised during the show and no two shows are the same.

“At the beginning of the quarter, we’ll figure out what characters we want to play, and then, with those characters, we will start to come up with a plot,” Mailender said.

Weinberg junior Kabeer Kishore said joining The Panini Players in the fall pushed him outside of his comfort zone with acting. He decided to play Pantalone, a miserly old man.

Assigning different stock characters every show is another departure from tradition, Burns said. During the Renaissance, actors played one character for their entire career.

While Mailender said actors may “gravitate” towards a specific character, she noted that changing characters is an integral part of keeping audiences entertained.

“We find that it’s really fun to find what each new person brings to a different character,” Burns said. “We really enjoy that variety and what kind of refreshed perspectives people can bring to these roles as we come together as a troupe.”

Kishore said the group has five members, but they encourage others to audition. He said the more actors are in the show, the longer and more diverse performances will be.

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Twitter: @nicolejmarkus

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