27 July 2009

'Trilogia della Villeggiatura' (Lincoln Center Festival 2009)

Carlo Goldoni’s Trilogia della Villeggiatura, presented by the Piccolo Teatro di Milano and Teatri Uniti di Napoli, opened on Wednesday, 22 July, at the Rose Theater, a sub-venue of the Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. The production featured stage and movie actor Toni Servillo (Il Divo, Gommorah), who also directed. (Teatri Uniti is Servillo’s own company, founded in 1987. Giorgio Strehler’s production of Arlecchino, also by Goldoni, for the Piccolo appeared at the 2005 LCF.) Of the three LCF performances my friend Diana and I selected this year, this was the most disappointing for several connected reasons.

Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1761 three-part satire of the Italian middle class, revived more than 50 years ago by the Piccolo's late founder, Giorgio Strehler, was performed in Italian with English supertitles. The play, whose title translates as “The Holiday Trilogy” (though it’s always called by its Italian title), follows two families from Livorno as they prepare for, go on, and return from a vacation in the country (villeggiatura means ‘summer holiday in the country’). Comic misadventures ensue, and the play is character- and plot-driven. The playwright is making caustic observations about both the Italian society of his day (which aren’t out of line with today’s world even here in the U.S.) and life’s ironies and injustices. Impossible or unlikely romance and financial problems are the main subjects. Goldoni was something of an innovator in Western theater: he was one of the first dramatists to focus on the concerns of the growing middle class. After adapting the antics of the Renaissance farces--Arlecchino, a version of Goldoni’s best-known play, Servant of Two Masters (1745), is based on Commedia characters and practices--Goldoni turned to characters and situations more closely resembling contemporary life. Everyday matters, such as the preparations for a trip to the country or the mishaps of a vacation, became the brushstrokes with which he painted his middle-class portraits. Like Schiller, who came along about a half century later, Goldoni often wrote in the vernacular of his own native environment--Venetian for Goldoni and Schwabian for Schiller--affording his characters the tone of ordinary people.

I won’t present a detailed synopsis of the play (which the Piccolo kindly did provide in the program), but I will say that the play is divided into three parts (hence the “trilogy,” though it’s performed in two acts): in Livorno preparing to leave for the country, in the country, back in Livorno after the interrupted vacation. (As far as I can tell, the Piccolo’s rendition is a combination of three connected plays, an actual trilogy: "Pining for Vacation," "Holiday Adventures," and "Back from Vacation," all dated 1761. This could account for the length of the LCF production: two hours, forty-five minutes. It probably also accounts for the sometimes lengthy set-changes, which was odd considering how minimal the design was.) In Servillo’s adaptation, the first act, which incorporates the prep for the country vacation and the first part of the stay, embodies the farcical elements of the story such as what dresses to take on vacation and who will be sitting in whose carriage during the trip; act two, dealing with the second part of the country trip and the return to town, moves into the realm of seriousness and consequentiality, namely the problems of indebtedness, financial reversals, and marital loyalty.

As I said, this was a disappointing performance, and I will try to tell you why in a moment. First, however, let me start by praising the general work of the Piccolo, with which I could find no serious fault. (I did think they spoke awfully fast, but that’s partly the nature of the Italian language and partly the nature of the 18th-century comedy of manners which Goldoni composed.) Despite the supertitles and their placement (yes, I’m going to castigate that technology again!), I was able to follow a good deal of the characterizations the actors accomplished, and this work, like the work of the other ensembles I have praised recently, was noteworthy. Once again, I witnessed the immense advantage that actors gain when performing with others they know well and have worked with for many years. Individually, however, the cast was just as accomplished as any in the star-oriented West End or Broadway theater. Villeggiatura, because it moves from near-farce to near-melodrama, demands that many of the characters shift from a light touch to deeper emotional commitment, from Commedia-like stylization to what can only be described as 18th-century naturalism. The central characters of Leonardo and Giacinta also move from confidence to insecurity and even fear to resignation and acceptance, and the actors Andrea Renzi and Anna Della Rosa accomplished this with complete believability in both their vocal and physical demeanor.

In contrast, there are the characters who never seem to change irrespective of stimulus. Prominent among these are Tognino, the dimwitted country doctor’s son (Marco D'Amore), and the freeloading Ferdinando, the man who came forever (director-adapter Servillo). These men are more allied to the farcical predecessors of Goldoni’s earlier work and keep the play in a lighter vein when they are on stage. The actors, both clearly accomplished farceurs, maintained the perfect level of imbecility (D’Amore) and foppishness (Servillo). It is when the play was in the farce mode that the verbiage raced past at warp speed; when the more serious moments of the play took stage, the speech became more naturalistic (and the supertitles easier to follow).

The clearer example of the evolution in intensity is the romances Goldoni lays out in the story. While the financial problems are the catalyst for the play’s conclusion, it is a subject that’s handled one-dimensionally in each half of the play. In the first part, Leonardo simply dismisses the matter of the debts he owes the merchants and vendors in town, mush as Scarlet O’Hara dismisses all unpleasant concerns with a “fiddle-dee-dee.” In the second part, the debts come due and Leonardo’s distraught, but his friend and adviser, Fulgenzio, simply devises a viable solution and Leonardo and the others all adopt it, resolving the matter precipitously. The love stories, however, are a more complex matter. Goldoni seems to be exploring the various notions of love’s obligations and marital commitment and has devised several permutations to demonstrate the issues.

Freeloading Ferdinando precipitates a dalliance with Filippo’s elderly, widowed sister, Sabina. This is the purely comic romance, not too different from ones that are lampooned in the Commedias. Two oldsters, one a man-hungry biddy and the other a commitment-phobic mooch, tease and banter throughout the play. Rosina, a working-class country girl, is encouraged by her mother to flirt with the doctor’s idiot son, Tognino, because she has no dowry and can do no better. The doctor, when he learns of this courtship, threatens to disown his son, but the couple marry in secret and for all Tognino’s lack of wits, both are delighted with the match. The servants Paulino and Brigida are also in love, but theirs is the only normal romance in the bunch: they simply love each other and nothing stands in their way. It’s the model against which all the other romances should be measured.

Then there’s Leonardo, Giacinta, Guglielmo, and Vittoria. Leonardo loves Giacinta, his neighbor and the daughter of his older friend, Filippo. She seems to return his affections, but Filippo isn’t sure if the match is the best one, so he’s promoting Guglielmo. In the first act, this all takes the form of Leonardo’s distress over traveling to the country with the father and daughter and whether he can ride in their carriage with her. When he learns that Filippo has invited Guglielmo to travel with them, Leonardo declares he won’t go at all. There’s also the matter of his sister Vittoria’s new dress for the trip, so this going-not going-going again seesaw goes on for most of the first scene accompanied by a lot of running about between the two houses. It’s all silliness, of course. But the tenor shifts as Giacinta begins to develop feelings for Guglielmo even though she’s now become officially engaged to Leonardo. Can she break off the engagement and follow her heart? Or should she remain true to the commitment and the contract she and her father have made with Leonardo? Leonardo sees the development and becomes jealous of Guglielmo and suspicious of Giacinta. Leonardo and Giacinta begin to show signs of insecurity and troubled minds; no longer is the romantic road so smooth and easy. Meanwhile, as an excuse to stick around, Guglielmo pretends to be paying court to Vittoria, who is more than pleased with this turn of events. Guglielmo is non-committal, but keeps the ball in play until he and Giacinta are caught meeting in the woods one night. Giacinta explains to Leonardo that Guglielmo has come to her for advice about proposing to Vittoria, and Guglielmo confirms the story. Now committed to Vittoria, even though that’s not what he intended, Guglielmo dutifully plays the fiancé despite his feelings for Giacinta. Giacinta struggles with the conflict she has but finally decides that she must accompany her husband when he leaves for Genoa to restore his fortunes and leave Guglielmo behind. None of this is particularly funny--the comedy is supplied in the last part of the play by the secretly married Rosina and Tognino (who has trouble keeping the secret, he’s so thrilled to be a married man). Love and marriage, Goldoni shows us, is not so carefree and enchanting as the earlier romantic comedies would have us all believe. Sometimes you marry a boob. Sometimes you commit to something you wish you hadn’t. Sometimes the demands of married life are harsh and unforgiving. Only the servants got happily-ever-after.

It is also worth noting, I think, that casting had an effect on the way the play came across. I know that sounds obvious, but give me moment. Now, I’m not so familiar with Villeggiatura as I was with Arlecchino, say, but my impression is that the young characters here ought to be in their twenties, or early thirties at most. Leonardo, Giacinta, Vittoria, and Guglielmo, the four romantic leads, as it were, seem as if they ought to be young. (The same, I would say, is true of the servant-lovers. The fourth pair of romantic partners, Rosina and Tognino, may even be younger as Tognino at one point says he’s 16.) Besides the fact that most lovers in Renaissance plays are in late adolescence (and marriage at the time tended to occur by that age anyway), the nature of the characters, with their obsession over fashion and appearances and their disregard for serious concerns like finances and debts, makes them seem callow. The actors, however, were much older, making them seem somewhat long in the tooth to behave like flibbertigibbets. Actually, I don’t really know how old the women are, but Renzi is 46 and Tommaso Ragno, who plays Leonardo’s rival, Guglielmo, is 43. (I assume the women are comparable ages.) It isn’t a matter of actors playing roles younger than they are--Tony Perkins played juveniles until he was in his forties, but he looked like a kid even then. These men, especially Renzi, looked their ages. (Leonardo changed his shirt in the first scene and it was obvious he’s no youngster.) This not only changes the dynamic of the romantic aspects of the story, but it also throws a different light on the matter of financial woes. A man of 20 or so might well overlook such matters: he inherited wealth and a successful business--let them take care of themselves while he just spends and has fun. (It’s not like we haven’t seen that in our day. People magazine is full of guys and gals like that! Does the name Paris Hilton ring any bells?) But a 40-something man ought to have learned a thing or two by now. His businesses need management, his affairs need looking after. He also ought to be above worrying about who sits next to his neighbor’s daughter in the carriage--that’s so high school! On the other hand, maybe I’m just hypersensitive.

Both actors, though, had a superb technical grasp of the roles and in all other respects gave creditable performances. Ragno has a terrific additional asset which he and Servillo used to great effect. He has the most sonorous baritone voice! It seemed incongruous at first--he looks like he ought to be a tenor, and then this deep growl came out of his mouth. Guglielmo seldom spoke above what Charles Isherwood described in the Times as a “sexy purr.”

The sets, by Carlo Sala, were minimalistic for the most part. (In Back Stage, Jason Fitzgerald credits the set design with “setting the canvas” and creating “the most arresting moment” in the production.) In town, the houses of Leonardo and Filippo were designated by the same bare façade formed by a simple taupe-colored flat with a large opening in the center and two smaller doorways on each side. A few chairs, lounges, and tables were carried on and off by the servants and a sort of light flash behind the flat indicated when we changed from Leonardo and Vittoria’s house to Filippo and Giacinta’s. As the setting shifted from one to the other in a series of quick scenes in the first part of act one, this allowed the largely farcical act to move swiftly and seamlessly. When the play moved to the country, the first setting was equally spare, with just the sweep of a sky cyc emblazoned with a bright, yellow sun across the back and, again, occasional furniture--this time folding lawn seats and tables--brought on and off. Act two, however, opened in a country glade which Sala rendered with a backdrop of willow-like tree branches, a leaf-patterned ground cloth, and projection through a cookie of leafy shadows over the whole scene that dappled the actors as if they were in a moon-lit forest under a lacy canopy of leaves. It was the most elaborate set of the production and though it contrasted with the rest of the play, it was wonderfully effective theatrically in its own right. The rest of the second act was a return to the interior home set of act one. And even though the façade of the town interior and the tree branches of the glade were flown out, other parts of the settings had to be struck by hand for each scene change--that ground cloth for instance--and this certainly extended the length of the performance by a good ten to fifteen minutes all together while we sat and watched the stagehands going about their tasks.

The principal problem seems to be inherent in the script, although director Servillo might have missed the boat in not overcoming it. Plays that mix genres or shift from light comedy to serious drama can make it seem like you’re watching TV with someone switching channels back and forth on you. The parts don’t mesh and if the actors don’t get confused moving from one genre and style to the other, the audience can. The silliness undermines the serious points and the seriousness dampens the comedy. (Tragicomedy attempts to combine the funny and the serious, not so much to flip back and forth.) In addition, high comedy in a period play can work marvelously, as it does in Earnest (Wilde’s other comedies can display the problems of the mixed genres) or The Country Wife, say, but when you start to deal with everyday matters of a past decade, there’s a danger that the daily concerns of a distant time don’t really connect with a 21st-century audience. I don’t mean the deeper concerns that are signified by the daily ones; they’re often universal. I mean the activities and business of the stage life, the topics of conversation. A ten-minute scene of card-playing is enervating, and endless discussion of a new dress is . . . well, endless. (Okay, it didn’t help that these were during the speed-talking parts of the play.) Arlecchino and the Commedia use those kinds of concerns as excuses for physical hijinks and jokes, but Villeggiatura takes these as the stuff of real drama. It only takes a little of that to put me off, I’m afraid. I’m not sure what a director could do to alleviate the problem, though when he’s also the adapter of the text, there might be more options. Elisabeth Vincentelli of the Post blamed the problem on Servillo’s “too safe” approach, committing neither to the “zany” nor the “elegant.” I’m not sure I agree since that would only throw the competing parts of the production into starker contrast, but since I don’t know the answer myself, maybe Vincentelli’s right. I’ve often said that actors who direct themselves on stage--the movies are a different animal--often end up giving short shrift to one responsibility or the other. I wonder if that played a role here. I suspect that, at the very least, some additional cutting and compacting might have served the production better.

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