This was the basic, universal production of the Commedia dell'Arte, performed by troupes of travelling actors during the Renaissance. The performances, based on stock characters rather than actual lines, were improvised; therefore, there is no single set plot or script for the play.

An actor (women acted as well as men) would usually assume a single role and keep it throughout his or her career. Each character had a specific, recognizable role (and costume). Their manners were very exaggerated, heightened by lazzi to achieve comic effect.

The play most often revolved around the innamorati (lovers), called Lelio and Isabella (or Silvio and Angelica, Leandro and Lavinia, etc). They were young and attractive aristocrats; their speech and manner were exceedingly light and airy. Instead of wearing masks and robes, they wore very fashionable clothing and heavy makeup. They invoked each other very elaborately, but they were very shallow and much more in love with being in love than in each other.

These two were supported by much more exaggerated characters:

The miser, Pantalone: wealthy but very stingy. He was the father of one of the lovers (usually Isabella), and would often bargain his daughter away if it favored his wallet. Although he was the "boss," he was often the butt of everyone's jokes.

The master, Il Dottore (Gratiano, Balanzone): Pantalone's best friend and father of Lelio. He is known for ranting excessively about useless topics, for he believes that he knows everything. His lectures usually droned on for several minutes until he either passed out or was carried off of the stage; the ulterior object of this was to give the other actors a respite during a performance.

The captain, Il Capitano (Coccodrillo, Giangurgolo): would boast about his heroic nature and skill in battle as he clamours for war, but he runs away sheepishly at the first hint of action. He wore an old, torn military uniform and carried a sword wherever he went.

The fool, Pulcinella: always accompanied Capitano, sometimes as his employee. His only interests were women and food (or drink). Although he appears slow and ugly, he is sometimes very clever, much more so than his companion.

The villain, Brighella: he is the source of most conflict. He tricks the two fathers or Capitano into following his schemes while he somehow profits financially.

The zanni (servants): were usually much more astute than their masters. Columbina, Isabella's maid, provided witty comments about the other characters. Arlecchino (Harlequin), her lover, would accidentally screw up the plots of Pantalone or Lelio. The two provided comic relief and a social commentary for the audience. Pedrolino (Pierrot) was a younger servant who was often mute, although he secretly loved Columbina. He dressed like a modern-day mime, and performed inconspicuous tasks for his masters.

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