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What’s different in Hillary DePiano’s adaptation of The Green Bird vs Carlo Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte original

by Jul 28, 2015On Writing: Craft and Commiseration, The Green Bird0 comments

While my adaptation of The Love of Three Oranges stayed fairly close to the original (outside of everything related to the whole Narrator/Celio thing which was all me, baby), my adaptation of The Green Bird is fairly different from Carlo Gozzi’s original. While obviously every line of dialog was rewritten from scratch, I worked hard to make sure just about every plot element from the original was still there in some form so that the play was still recognizably itself but I changed the sequence of events around quite a bit in the second half of the play and “added” a character for a few reasons.

Firstly, I wanted to cut out the racism and misogyny. Get that crap outta my play. The second was to try to tone down a particularly gross plot element.

But the third was because one of the biggest problems that has always plagued adaptations of this show is that the plot kind of drags. It even happened to theatre goddess Julie Taymor herself. You can say that story isn’t as important in comedy and maybe that was true in Gozzi’s time but it’s not really true today. There has to be some kind of stakes and thrust moving everything forward or a modern audience isn’t going to stick around for the jokes. I put Gozzi’s play in a blender and hit frappe, reordering everything that happens into what, to me anyway, is a more logical progression moving everything towards a more powerful ending.

Let’s move out of the general and into the specific. If you’re curious what makes my version different from others, here’s exactly what I changed:

Calmon is the Narrator

In the original, Calmon, King of Statues, appears in a crack of thunder, solves everyone’s problems and disappears. I knew I wanted this show to have a Narrator in the vein of Three Oranges and Calmon was the perfect choice. Now his involvement is less deus ex machina because he’s the one telling the story.

Unlike the Narrator in TLOTO, however, who’s in complete control of the story even when it seems like he isn’t, Calmon is having a lot more trouble keeping the story in line because the characters keep changing things around. This turns him into a much sillier character than his more authoritative original personality but also added a nice meta element to explain why my version has so many changes from the original. It’s because the characters are changing the story right out from under Calmon and I!

Smeraldina / Franceschina / Queen Tartagliona 

Gozzi’s Smeraldina is burned alive at the end of TLOTO and through racist stupidity, comes back in Green Bird as the opposite of her personality from Oranges. She marries Truffaldino. In the meantime, Tartaglia’s mother, Queen Tartagliona, is ruling his kingdom in his absence and is the main villain with Brighella as her sidekick completely randomly.

None of this was going to fly. First of all, no way in HELL was that racist crap happening in any play of mine and, secondly, I killed off Queen Tartagliona in my version of Three Oranges.  I didn’t kill Smeraldina, however, so I decided to just pull a switcheroo. Smeraldina, disguised as the late Queen Tartagliona, is the main villain which gave the character a nice symmetry from her role in Three Oranges where she’s always complaining about not getting her turn to finally get her pivotal role in this play. It also makes much more sense to have Brighella as her lackey and lover since the two were hooking up in my version of Oranges anyway. (That wasn’t in the original either, I just remembered. Maybe I changed more in Oranges than I thought.) Everything about this change felt right.

But Truffaldino still needed to be married to somebody for the plot to work and I just stole his wife. Before I started work on The Green Bird, I had written a story in the project I’ve been calling 4th Orange in which Truff fell in love with a woman as weary of adventures as he was after Oranges. While I’m not sure if that story will ultimately make it into the final form of 4th Orange or not, I decided to keep the character and make her Truff’s wife in this play as well. I chose the name Franceschina because it’s the female clown in commedia tradition that’s usually more matronly and mother-like and it seemed like the best fit, though I cursed this choice literally every time I had to write it out because spelling long Italian words is my arch nemesis.

Technically, I “added” a character in Franceschina but, really, all I did was switch some names around. Sort of.

The Green Bird

The play is called The Green Bird. You’d expect him to be fairly important then, right? Yeah… he’s not. Not in Gozzi’s version anyway where he has barely anything to do with the plot.

I made a series of minor tweaks throughout the play all with one main aim: to make The Green Bird integral to the plot. Now he’s got a hand, er, wing in every single thing that happens and he is a part of the inciting incident itself. In short, he’s more important to the story so it makes much more sense that the play is named after him.

I did, however, take away all of his dialog as the bird. He speaks in his human form but only squawks and whistles as a bird. The big reason for this was the plot would be over in 3 seconds if the bird could talk as he’s the only one who knows what’s actually going on. The fact that he withholds this info and prolongs everyone’s suffering by not just telling everyone the truth in Gozzi’s makes him a jerk anyway and I think he’s more sympathetic if he wants to tell, but can’t.

And, not for anything, but birds don’t talk. I know this play has singing apples and statues coming to life but you have to draw the line SOMEWHERE people. 😛

Pompea

Pompea appears way later in my version and only ever comes to life once, for good, at the end. Without giving away the ending, instead of her being just another random enchanted thing, she’s directly tied to the story of The Green Bird and, though her part is technically smaller, it’s much more important now which I think is an improvement.

The Quest for the Singing Apple and Dancing Waters

In the original, Barbarina in cursed with these two quests, guilt trips her brother into going for her, feels badly about that, and then goes after him. Instead, Renzo is cursed with one quest, her the other, and they both set off at the same time. They both end up in the same place anyway so this was just a small tweak that made more sense to me.

And, instead of Calmon saving them from the monsters, The Green Bird does because see above about making him more important to the plot.

Magic Maguffin Feather

We end up in several magical messes throughout Gozzi’s play, some of which are deus ex machina-ed by Calmon appearing in a flash of lightning and some by needing the feather of the Green Bird. Because my Calmon had such a different role, I just made the feather an all purpose Maguffin to break any enchantment because, again, it made the Green Bird more central to the plot.

Incest

In Gozzi’s original a Tartaglia falls in love with a Barbarina. He doesn’t know she’s his daughter and nothing ever actually happens between them but there are endless pages and pages of gross flirting and back and forth that were honestly one of the main reasons I didn’t want to adapt this play for years. In my version, while the falling in love still happens, it’s because Tartaglia is out of his mind with a curse and everything is toned down dramatically to where, while there are a few off-color jokes, they’re all made by Calmon instead of the characters themselves.

For a lot of schools, this whole incest bit was one of the main deterrents of doing the show before and I think you’ll be please to see how I handled it. It’s still awkward and funny but doesn’t go on forever like Gozzi’s version does. It’s something a school board might actually approve with only cutting a line or two which was my goal.

Pantalone and the Magic Knife

Pantalone’s part has been beefed up considerably. Instead of just wrapping the babies and tossing them in the river to try to save them, he intentionally brings them to Truffaldino who he knows will keep them safe. I also gave him Renzo’s magic knife from the original so that he would know their fate from afar. He also is the only one who knows who the twins are which gives him much more to do, particularly once the King is cursed.

Ninetta

In the original, Ninetta’s main function is to stand there miserable while The Green Bird gives her large chunks of exposition. Her children are ripped from her, she thinks she’s lost her husband, she’s buried alive and covered with poop for 18 years. She stays this way the entire play until the very end when she’s finally freed and her husband, disappointed he can’t have the girl he was all hot for because she’s his daughter,  is basically like, “Ew, she got all old. I guess I’ll still be faithful to her or whatever.”

I approve of none of this. Ninetta and Tartaglia are The Lovers in this dang play and they don’t even get a real happy ending? Come on, Gozzi, you’re killing me.

She’s still buried alive. There’s still poop. But Ninetta now has more to do, more agency and actually gets out a little earlier so that she and her husband can meet again on more equal footing and have the reunion the audience deserves after all the misery they go through. And because I changed the incest thing to a curse that can be broken, they get to have their reunion with both parties still in love with each other. Best of all, she gets to be a complete badass at one point which is much more fun than just sitting around miserable all play.

The Characters

Gozzi famously said that he didn’t care about his characters, that they were just the tools of his comedy, and that never shows more than in this play. Personalities reverse from Three Oranges and relationships are completely trashed, particularly Tartaglia and Truffaldino and Tartaglia and Ninetta. Truffaldino was awful to his wife in a way that doesn’t even really translate today and he became completely unlikable. And Renzo and Barbarina’s entire personalities were based on a parody of a philosophy that doesn’t have a modern equivalent.

I hated it all so much, I didn’t want to touch this play for years because I actually do care about these characters and hated to see everything from the other play completely chucked out. A lot of the little changes I made were in service of making the characters more real, within the over-the-top comedic world of the play, and, while it’s a dark play that largely about a lot of terrible people, I wanted everyone to be at least a little bit likable. The twins are now a parody of all the narcissistic traits people claim millennials have, Truffaldino and his wife are dysfunctional but in a less abusive way, and Tartaglia and Ninetta are themselves again. As for Tartaglia and Truffaldino, I actually ended up cutting their reunion scene because it no longer fit in the new plot so they have only one moment together, at the very end, and it leaves their relationship intact from Oranges.

Whew! That took forever to write up but I hope someone trying to compare versions will find it helpful. I also wanted to give anyone interested in the process of adaptation a closer look at how that actually happens and I think this gives you a pretty good overview of the homework that went on behind the scenes in order to make the play what it ended up being.

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Hillary DePiano is a playwright, fiction and non-fiction writer who loves writing of all kinds except for writing bios like this.

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