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Poetic Justice Project stages Commedia dell'arte play about the prison experience

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It’s no secret that great comedy arises out of adverse circumstances. Injustice, divorce, the numbing boredom of airplane waiting lines—all excellent fodder for jokes. Even something as bleak as prison life has proven fruitful in the pursuit of laughter. I’m lookin’ at you Orange is the New Black and that classic, Tom Hanks prison comedy, The Green Mile. OK, just joking on that last one. But prison is rife with comedic possibilities, and that is just what the Poetic Justice Project has in store with its newest theatrical production, Inside Out.

Founded in 2009, the Poetic Justice Project is a local program that offers formerly incarcerated youths and adults the opportunity to create and participate in original, theatrical productions. Over the years, under the artistic direction of founder Deborah Tobola, the project has staged six productions, including Of Mice and Men. And, earlier this year, our sister paper the Santa Maria Sun covered the production of a web series starring prominent Poetic Justice Project actor and former California Men’s Colony inmate, William Brown. The series, Solitary, explored the harrowing reality what it’s like to experience solitary confinement.

Inside Out takes a somewhat different approach to prison life. There’s no camera and no Internet. Instead, there is just the mysterious allure of masks and the physical gestures of the human form. These are the hallmarks of commedia dell’arte—the traditional style of Italian slapstick comedy that dates back to the 16th century. It’s a theatrical form famous for a boisterous, exaggerated, and improvised atmosphere that highlights the broad emotions of the human condition.

This is the first time the Poetic Justice Project has produced a commedia dell’arte piece. Written by Gale McNeeley, a Santa Maria-based performer and graduate of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Northern California and the Scoula Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy, Inside Out tells the story of Damian. According to Poetic Justice Project’s website, the act follows Damian “from trial to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive.”

Inside Out plays in San Luis Obispo at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. On Dec. 6, there is a matinee performance at 3 p.m. There are additional shows on Dec. 7 in Goleta, and on Dec. 12 and 13 in Santa Maria. There is a suggested donation of $15 for adults and $10 for students. For more information, visit poeticjusticeproject.org.

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