Silence Is Golden

When an artist appears on the Met stage, there is generally some noise. Lots of it—in high notes high, low notes, and everything in between. But not for Rob Besserer, who appears in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in the mute role of Ambrogio, Dr. Bartolo’s household servant. By Charles Sheek

Rob Besserer began his life in the theater as a dancer during the dance boom of the mid-1970s. After making a name for himself with the companies of Lar Lubavitch and Mark Morris, as well as with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, he left behind pure dance to try his hand at stage acting. His six projects with director/choreographer Martha Clarke helped in his transition.

Asked whether he now considers himself a dancer or an actor, Besserer says it’s somewhere between the two; it’s hard to categorize, but he does see a glint of silent film star Buster Keaton in his role in Barbiere. The laconic Keaton’s trademark was physical comedy with a stoic deadpan expression that earned him the name “The Great Stone Face.” Besserer sees Ambrogio as a sad sack character, not a clown but someone who quietly witnesses the absurdities of life—and occasionally gets pulled into them. “I think he’s unhealthy and tired of his job but completely devoted to his master,” Besserer says. “It’s a dysfunctional, highly bonded relationship. Ambrogio may appear to be dim-witted, but he just looks that way. It’s part of his power of knowing everything that is going on.”

Ambrogio is one in a long line of stock characters who have evolved from commedia dell’arte, the Italian comedy of the Renaissance and 17th century, and handed down in many guises. Commedia has influenced works by Shakespeare and Molière, as well as artists like Charlie Chaplin, Marcel Marceau, the Marx Brothers, Homer Simpson, and Grandma the Clown from the Big Apple Circus. Even rubber chickens (which figure in Barbiere) and a pie in the face can trace their existence to the “zani,” the clownish commedia characters whose stock in trade were crude jokes and stylized comedy (and from which the word “zany” is derived).

The world-weary servant Ambrogio comes straight out of this tradition. And though the character is old, ailing, and fatigued, the audience will never see Besserer yawn on stage. Director Bartlett Sher made it very clear early on that yawning is contagious for an audience and a dangerous thing for an actor to do on stage for fear of causing a chain reaction. No problem for Besserer, who is aware that stillness and silence in the midst of lots of activity can pull the audience in. “You have to be careful not to steal the scene because people become interested in the person who is not telling you what he feels, but who is sort of showing you. They are much more visually keyed into that character.” He glances conspiratorially at the cast members singing nearby. “But that is a secret!”