Mullen Center for the Performing Arts Show Opener


Courtesy of Villanova Theatre

“Slaphappy” is the first show to premiere in the new performing arts center.

A.J. Fezza, Co-Culture Editor

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that just ahead of the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts’ grand opening, Villanova Theatre had to adapt. And adapt they did. All throughout the remainder of 2020 and going into 2021, the talented creative minds of Villanova Theatre put together filmed productions that could be viewed via streaming on their website. 

One of these productions, “Slaphappy: A Covid-Era Commedia,” was just re-released in-person this past weekend, making it the first public show of the 2021-2022 school year at the Mullen Center. The film was presented at the Center’s Topper Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m.. Tickets were free, but a $10 donation was suggested for those in attendance. 

“Slaphappy: A Covid-Era Commedia ” was directed by Villanova Theatre Department Chairperson Dr. Valerie Joyce. It is a two-and-a-half hour mockumentary-style film, filmed and edited by Communication Professor Hezekiah L. Lewis, III. “Slaphappy” was originally made available online via streaming from May 20-30, 2021. There was also a private presentation at the Topper Theatre in late May, open to the show’s cast, crew, and designers. However, Aug. 28 marked the film’s first in-person showing open to the entire public, and the first show presented at the Topper Theatre since the 2021-2022 school year began. 

“Slaphappy” is reminiscent of the hit 2012 comedy film “Pitch Perfect,” except instead of being about collegiate a cappella competitions, this film follows college groups as they compete to be the top commedia dell’arte troupe in the country. Commedia dell’arte is an early form of professional theatre that emphasized ensemble acting and improvisation. For those unfamiliar with commedia dell’arte, or theatre in general, this film provided an amusing look into the world of this lively art form.

The Villanovan spoke with Dr. Joyce for more information about the inspiration behind “Slaphappy.”

“When we realized last Fall that we were not going to have in-person audiences, I scrapped the hope of doing ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and started thinking about a commedia piece, since masks are a part of that genre anyway,” Dr. Joyce said. “The main thing I was looking for in 2021 was to laugh with the students and get them some practical training that they had been missing, since so much of 2020 was either over Zoom or socially distanced.  The physical nature of the commedia style seemed like the perfect fit. After rejecting most of the tried-and-true commedia scripts because they were either focused on a young woman being forced to marry an older man she hates and then watching Pitch Perfect one night, I was inspired to mimic the joyful spirit of the collegiate competitive circuit, but for commedia teams.”

In “Slaphappy,” there are three competing teams: the Ciao Bellas, the Compagnia della Commedia dell’Arte and the UPenn Quackers. The film follows the teams as they rehearse their routines and eventually compete in a Lazzi Off competition (lazzi being stock comedic routines common to commedia dell’arte), a Regional Competition, and a National Competition. Interestingly, many of the most entertaining scenes in the film are the rehearsal scenes, since they reveal the intragroup dynamics of the teams and show the actors feuding over their artistic visions. 

“Slaphappy” was an entirely-improvised show. Dr. Joyce kept an outline with a general order of scenes and plot points, but every step of the way, changes were being made and students were bringing their own ideas to the table. 

“Students came to auditions with a strong sense of who they were interested in playing, and we took those impulses and worked together to create the teams and develop the relationships,” Dr. Joyce said.

The cast and crew were mostly graduates, with the exception of two actors: Timothy Krall, who graduated in 2021, and current senior Ryan Henry. Krall played the character Roy “The Boy,” a member of the Ciao Bellas team who constantly feuds with the team’s high-strung leader Margo le Fay, played by graduate student Tina Lynch.

“Working on ‘Slaphappy’ was a fantastic time,” Krall said. “The graduate students welcomed me with open arms and encouraged me to be creative. It was an awesome way to finish up my college experience.”

“Slaphappy” was filmed throughout March and April of 2021, when COVID-19 masking and social distancing requirements were still in full effect, making for a slightly more difficult filming process.

“The cast and designers didn’t know what the film would actually look like until we all viewed it together last May, since we had to be socially distanced the whole time,” Dr. Joyce said. “We had the film crew and only who was being filmed in the room for each scene.”

When the rough cut of the film was completed, it had a length of a whopping 4.5 hours. Ultimately, the length was reduced substantially to about 2.5 hours, with an intermission included 1.5 hours in. 

In addition to Dr. Joyce, Professor Lewis, and the cast and crew of “Slaphappy,” the attention to detail in this film was made possible by its many consultants, coaches, and designers. For example, all of the intricate costumes, wigs, and masks in the competition scenes of the film are the product of Costume Designer Professor Janus Stefanowicz.

“​Slaphappy was, by far, the best part of the 2020-2021 academic year for me personally,” Dr. Joyce said. “We had so much fun making it together and the students really learned a lot about not only a historical art form but also acting for film. It was a win-win.”

For those who missed the showing on Aug. 28, “Slaphappy” is available for streaming until Sunday, September 5 through the Villanova Theatre website. Viewers are encouraged to donate $10, or any amount of their choice. 

Going forward, the University waits with excitement to see the Mullen Center (and its gorgeous Topper Theatre) be used to its full potential throughout the rest of the 2021-2022 school year, with not just film showings, but packed audiences and live performances.