Alarm! was a show I directed and produced for the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2007. It was my most ambitious Commedia project to date, and we performed to good houses, including a packed final night, and received a positive review from ArtsHub (below).

Musical director: Raelene Bruinsma

Acrobatics Coach: Matty Brown

Stage combat choreographer: Elena Kirschbaum

Lighting design/operator: Tai Stephens


Robin Davidson

Petra Elliott

Bianca Gonos

Steven Kennedy

Celeste Markwell

Kate O’Keeffe

Debbie Zukerman

Helen Delaney was an integral part of the team devising the show, but due to an unfortunate accident was unable to perform.

Here’s the original blurb for the show:

The five hundred year old masks of the Commedia dell’Arte are

brought back to life in a new performance to premier at the

Melbourne Fringe. Like the original Commedia, Alarm! will use stage combat, acrobatic moves, original music, improvisation and a touch of the burlesque to weave its farcical tale, but that tale is of ASIO and police powers, the war on terror, and sex dolls.

Commedia dell’Arte is the theatre which birthed Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot and Punch (before he became a hand puppet). It is the much-studied well-spring of European comedy, which Moliere and Shakespeare drew on, but is rarely performed. Alarm! is for anyone who wants to see the original spirit of the Commedia: physical, violent, bawdy and very funny; getting its sharp teeth stuck into the issues of the day, just as it did five hundred years ago.

Director Robin Davidson, studied the form in France with John Rudlin and in Italy with Antonio Fava. ‘I was first attracted to Commedia as a young theatre student in Bathurst,’ said Davidson, ‘from the work of contemporary theatre-makers like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Dario Fo. But when I encountered the masks, I was in love. They have a timeless energy, they transform actors, instantly connecting them with their bodies, and they love to improvise. They refuse to be tied down to a script.’


ArtsHub Review by Paul Knox

Commedia dell’Arte has a long history of satirising current events, combining improvised dialogue with exaggerated archetypal characters to parody local celebrities or scandals.

Unkempt Theatre’s 2008 Fringe production Alarm! continues this tradition substituting Harlequin the clown with the identity of a mistaken terrorist, the result being billed as “masks and malice as Harlequin meets Haneef”.

The story in a Commedia show rarely deviates from a set structure: two lovers wish to marry but are thwarted by one or more of their elders so resort to ever more ridiculous plots to realise their union.

Alarm! emphasises anti-authority overtones, turning the audience’s favourite Harlequin into Irish neighbour Seamus O’Tartagliassey, blamed for lowering local property prices and eventually arrested on suspicion of terrorism for selling his 'rocket' (in this case, of the salad variety – a clever device).

ASIO and local police, represented by the classic characters Il Capitano and Brighella, interrogate poor Seamus as they seek the promotion that would inevitably come from catching a terrorist.

Meanwhile other wheels are in motion involving the scheming miser Pantalone and his beautiful, idealistic daughter Isabella. Flavio is transformed into the female Flaminia for Alarm!, providing an updated twist to the lovers’ dilemma and general Commedia-style chaos ensues.

The performance space is small and the actors make full use of the intimate setting, alternating between the raised stage, the floor and even moving through the audience. A painting suggestive of oppressive authority adorns the back wall and the costumes and masks are suitably colourful for Commedia, forming a traditional presentation of this modern interpretation.

The seven actors are full of energy and improvise well the action bounces along quickly with the acrobatic physical performance and we are rarely left without something to hold our attention.

Steven Kennedy’s Seamus is suitably downtrodden and likeable, immediately winning the sympathy of the audience as he is beaten by Bianca Gonos’ Il Capitane and Debbie Zukerman’s Brighella.

The interrogation is full of slap-stick and all three handle the physical comedy well. Petra Elliot and Kate O’Keeffe are entertainingly larger-than-life as the accidentally lesbian lovers which O’Keeffe manages to balance with a hunch-backed portrayal of Punch.

Robin Davidson (also the director) guides the performance as Il Doctore, educating the audience about Commedia as he goes, and Celeste Markwell provides moments of hilarity as gold-digging phone sex operator Svetlana. Also worth a mention is Zukerman’s New York Jewish Pantalone, a stereotype lampooned with obvious affection.

Davidson creates an engaging Commedia performance with a light sprinkling of social commentary. Alarm! doesn’t take itself too seriously and is more about modernising the fun of the style than it is making any real statement about terrorism.

The improvised elements keep it fresh and entertaining but there are enough rehearsed set-pieces to ensure the performance doesn’t lag.

If you’re a fan of Commedia dell’Arte or just enjoy silly physical comedy, Alarm! comes highly recommended.

Alarm! runs until the 3rd of October at The Spot Bar and Bandroom, 133 Sydney Road, Brunswick. Bookings can be made through the venue on 03 9660 9666 or via the Melbourne Fringe Festival website.