When director Eric Kildow met with the cast of A Company of Wayward Saints, made up almost entirely of Armstrong Atlantic State University students, he had some splainin' to do.
George Herman's classic backstage comedy is performed in a vintage Italian style known as commedia dell'arte, in which the company players are masked and engage in all sorts of physical and verbal balderdash, flibbertigibbet and on-the-spot improv. Wayward Saints is a real test of ensemble acting, an integral part of the theatrical arts.
Immediately, says Kildow, "They jumped in with both feet.
"Especially since they were warned: Yes, Eric used to teach here. But he is not one of your teachers any more. He is a guest artist, and therefore is slightly less concerned about how well you do in your classes."
Indeed, Kildow was once a cornerstone of the AASU theater department. For the last two years, he's been a drama instructor at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C.
Kildow went looking for a summer directing gig, while his own classes were out, and wound up chatting with Pete Mellen, and old buddy from the AASU theater unit.
As it turned out, the school was looking for a summer show, and invited Kildow, who came ready-made with an idea.
"A Company of Wayward Saints has been on the short list of shows that I really wanted to do for a while," he explains. "I'm a big fan of things that are based in the commedia dell'arte. When we were talking about shows, it was between this and two other commedia-based pieces." Herman's evergreen won out.
The AASU troupe is known as the Masquers, so commedia dell'arte, and Wayward Saints, seemed like a perfect fit.
The setup: A traveling troupe, Le Compagnie de Santi Ostinati, has been on the road just a little too long, and they're out of money. They need to get home.
Enter a wealthy nobleman, who offers his patronage if the company can please him with a show that covers the entire history of man.
Can they pull it off? The players are tired of the life, tired of one another, and behind the scenes there are tremendous ego battles, disintegrating romances, illicit flirtations and star-crossed lovers.
"Some of the characters are masked and some aren't," says Kildow. "In traditional commedia, some of the more buffoonish characters — such as the Pantalone and the Harlequin — were all masked. And the others were heavily made up. So it was almost like a mask, but not quite.
"This show slides between the characters as actors who are members of this company, and when these actor/characters are playing scenes. Sometimes they push their mask off their face or things of that nature."
First produced in 1963, A Company of Wayward Saints has been a roaring success on stages around the world. It has become the standard-bearer for commedia dell'arte.
"The first act borders more on the slapstick-y, hijinks kind of fun and funny," Kildow explains. "And the second act is a little bit more heartfelt, as they are discovering new dimensions and nuances for these characters that they thought they knew so well."
A Company of Wayward Saints, in the Jenkins Hall theater, at 7:30 p.m. July 11-13 and 18-20, and 3 p.m. July 14 and 21.