29 July 2012

'Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters' (Piccolo Teatro di Milano, 2005)

[On 9 July, I published my report on a production of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. That production was an adaptation by playwright Constance Congdon, first performed by Hartford Stage in 1996. In 2005, I saw an older interpretation at the Lincoln Center Festival, a 1947 version, called Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters, originally staged by the internationally renowned Italian director Giorgio Strehler, the founder of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano who died in 1997. As a contrast to the STC production, originally presented in 2010 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I’m publishing my seven-year-old report on the Lincoln Center performance. Even though Goldoni’s play is a classic, you’ll see that the interpretations of his 270-year-old script are quite different. (The second part of this report, which I have deleted here, covered the LCF performance of the Théâtre du Soliel’s Le Dernier Caravansérail, staged by Ariane Mnouchkine.)]

The Lincoln Center Festival is a clear and unambiguous representation that New York City gets more and a broader variety of cultural events from all over the world than, I believe, anywhere else on the planet. (I’ve never done a survey—and I’m not aware that anyone else has—but unscientifically, I think that’s so. For theater alone it seem to be true, but if you add in opera, dance, and music performances, and then count all the visiting visual art exhibits—New York City is the capital of the world.) In July 2005, I saw the Piccolo Teatro di Milano’s Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni and Le Dernier Caravansérail by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil. Both productions were fascinating experiences, and both had serious flaws as productions despite extraordinary performances.

The Piccolo Teatro di Milano, founded by Giorgio Strehler in 1947 as one of the first cultural endeavors of post-WWII Italy, experienced the throes of rebirth when Strehler died in 1997 at 76,. The Piccolo turned to two men to preserve Strehler’s vision: opera house manager Sergio Escobar and the experimental theater director Luca Ronconi. Through the continuity of artists like Ferruccio Soleri (who restaged Strehler’s Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters this year), a member of Piccolo’s company since 1958, the troupe’s been able to keep up the work Strehler began, maintaining the Piccolo as a home to the classics and the works of the great writers of the 20th century like Beckett, Brecht, and Pirandello, becoming known as the “Theater of Art for Everyone.” Strehler took a less innovative view of the classic plays the Piccolo presented than contemporary auteur directors like Araine Mnouchkine, reviving the plays’ spirits and relevance without reinterpreting their milieux or texts. The Piccolo’s production of Goldoni’s Trilogia della Villeggiatura, for instance, is staged as an 18th-century comedy even if the energy and dynamic of the cast is as modern as David Mamet. Strehler, and now his successors, put an emphasis on the physical work of actors—Strehler was a specialist in commedia dell’arte—and that’s in evidence in Arlecchino. Mnouchkine, in contrast, re-envisioned the Greek plays that tell the story of the House of Atreus as quasi-Kathakali dramas for Les Atrides and reset Tartuffe in the Middle East. Strehler guided the Piccolo for 50 years; In the theater, that’s a lifetime of leadership.

The Piccolo Teatro ‘s three-hour production of Arlecchino, originally staged by Strehler in 1947, is his take on Goldoni’s 1743 farce, The Servant of Two Masters—itself an adaptation from the previous century’s commedia dell’arte scenarios. Strehler stripped the text down to allow more improvising by the cast, returning the play to its commedia roots. (I’m going to assume a certain familiarity, if not with Goldoni’s classic, then the basic facts of commedia. Like that genre, the plot of Arlecchino is virtually irrelevant—just a frame to hang hi-jinks and verbal play on—so I won’t bother to recount it. Suffice it to say that it involves mistaken identities, scheming servants, plotting parents, separated lovers, and everything, in fact—as someone once said—that makes life worth living! From what I gather, both from reading reports and watching, the improvisation came during rehearsals and conception. The performances are choreographed tightly and, obviously, verbal improv wouldn’t allow the supertitles to follow the dialogue closely, which they apparently did.) In order to focus attention on the lead character, Strehler slightly renamed the play, which has been in the Piccolo’s repertoire for nearly 60 years (and over 2000 performances in 40 countries, according to their count). This production has been staged by Ferruccio Soleri, who’s played Arlecchino for more than four decades and, at 75, is still doing it. That’s one of the most remarkable aspects of this event—Soleri, under his mask, takes on the frisky, scheming clown like a man of . . . oh, I don’t know, maybe 35 at the most. He’s astounding, to put it mildly. (I had read Charles Isherwood’s 22 July review in the New York Times beforehand, so I knew Soleri was 75, but when he took off his mask at the curtain call, it was still a mini-shock. I had really forgotten while he was working how old he was.) The whole cast, as a matter of fact, is perfect. (There’s one guy—Paolo Calabresi, who plays Il Dottore—who I swear is either a giant or the rest of the cast is shrimps. He looks immense. I’d guess his huge belly is padding, but he isn’t wearing stilts or lifts, so his height is real, and he towers over everyone else on stage!) And the concept of reproducing commedia, with its little street stage (representing the commedia wagon bed), flat painted scenery, the actors “off stage” sitting or standing on the Alice Tully Hall stage to the right or left of the commedia stage as they awaited their entrances, the musicians and stage hands mostly visible—and sometimes engaging the actors in arguments when something doesn’t go “right”—the inserted lazzi, and the songs into which the actors break at the drop of a hat during scene changes, is delightful and, from my limited knowledge of theater history, wonderfully accurate.

I’m going to take a short (?) side trip here and delve into a topic Isherwood brought up in his review: the connection of commedia, especially as depicted here, with contemporary comedy. If you don’t already know it, or haven’t really seen it beyond reading about it in some theater history treatise, you can absolutely see where our common comic practices on TV and on stage originated. Isherwood mentions Homer Simpson, but I don’t watch that so I can only take his word for the reflection—but Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Chaplin, Martin and Lewis, Peter Sellers, Monty Python, Laugh-In, That Was The Week That Was, and Saturday Night Live: they’re all in there. This production even makes liberal use of an actual slapstick, the comic device (that dates back to Roman comedy, I think—a progenitor of commedia) that gave its name to a whole genre of modern (?) Western silliness. (The circus clown is, of course, a direct descendant of the zanni Harlequin/Arlecchino, followed by the Red Skeltons, Jackie Gleasons, Jerry Lewises, Lucille Balls, Carol Burnetts, Jim Carreys, among others After watching Soleri, I’m also convinced that Chico Marx was Arlecchino’s great-great-great-. . .-grandson! Not to mention Ed Norton and even Barney Fife—who were more like his great-great-great-grandnephews.) What’s amazing is that it’s still all hilarious! I’m not even a great lover of clowns—none of those performers I just listed are favorites of mine (except maybe Burnett)—and even though you know what’s coming most of the time—the routines haven’t changed in centuries—the execution by true masters like Soleri makes them seem fresh and surprising, even though they’re really not. Possibly the funniest scene in the play—one you could easily imagine Chaplin doing—is the one in which Arlecchino simultaneously serves separate dinners to his two masters at Brighella’s tavern. Soleri juggles the dishes and trays, tumbles and pratfalls, balances and dances in every direction, dodging the tavern keeper and his servants—never spilling a drop or dropping a platter! (It gives entirely new meaning to what we used to call at summer camp “running the biddie”!)

I made a brief reference above to the set, which is sort of bifurcated. The Piccolo Teatro’s set (designed by Ezio Frigerio) is an evocation of a town square, not quite realistically presented—there are awnings which resemble birds’ wings or ships’ sails—in the middle of which is a small raised platform that is the commedia playing area. At the rear of the platform is a frame on which are hung four pairs of painted curtains which represent another town piazza with the front entrances of several houses (Il Dottore’s and Pantalone’s), a large room in Panatolone’s house, the interior of Brighella’s tavern, and a Venetian street by a canal. As the scenes change, the stage hands simply step up on the platform and draw back or close the appropriate drapes to reveal the new locale. Off the sides of the platform, on the original Tully Hall stage, are waiting areas where the actors prepare for their entrances, the stage hands idle until they’re needed, and the musicians sit with their instruments. (There’s also an old fellow sitting stage right with a large book, obviously the text of the play or the instructions for the scenario. He’s either supposed to be Goldoni or a prompter—Michael Feingold in the Village Voice says he’s the prompter; I don’t recall that the commedians used a prompter, but never mind—and he occasionally got into disputes with the actors and others. It was an innocuous gag and just added to the general whirl of activity that included, but wasn’t limited to, the action on the platform.) Props are minimal—only what is actually used in the scene, no decorative elements beyond the painted drapes. “Decor” is painted onto the drapes, which looked to me to be modeled on 18th-century settings (Goldoni’s period) rather than 16th- or 17th-century (commedia’s period). The costumes, from what I could judge, are also early or mid-18th-century. Arlecchino, of course, wears his customary diamond-patterned patchwork outfit (an article on Soleri says he goes through three of them each show because of the sweat); all the comic male characters wear commedia masks, though only Arlecchino wears his all the time. (That’s, of course, why it was such a shock to see Soleri’s face at the curtain call.)

You may have noticed that I’ve focused on the physical aspects of the performance and haven’t said anything about the verbal comedy. That’s because that’s where the problem lay for me. It wasn’t the company’s fault, really—they spoke Italian, which I don’t understand, but that’s their language. The difficulty was in the supertitles and the auditorium configuration. I couldn’t read the titles from my seat without missing what was happening on stage entirely—it was physically impossible. There was only one title screen—up on the proscenium arch, right in the center. I was sitting fairly close to the stage, but over on house right. Alice Tully Hall is really a concert stage, and it has a wide stage with a very pronounced curve to it so that the house right and left seats are at about a 45° angle from the center of the stage. (Think of trying to watch a TV screen from the side.) Between the height above the stage and the angle of my view, reading the titles meant straining so much that I’d never get them read in time to look back at the stage to see what anyone was doing. So I decided to pay attention to the physical work, rely on the synopsis and my knowledge of the play and commedia to clue me in to what was going on, and ignore the actual dialogue. It wasn’t a completely satisfactory trade-off because I know that commedia includes a lot of jokes and other verbal play which I missed (assuming they would have even translated into English, which I supposed is problematical—though one review suggested that all the humor was replicated), and I wish that Lincoln Center, or whoever made this decision, had put screens at the sides and/or on the front of the stage (as several productions have done at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). I can understand why an interpreter wouldn’t have worked—the dialogue came too fast—but additional screens wouldn’t have been an imposition, especially since the performing area was confined to the center of the Alice Tully stage; the rest of the space was “off stage” and would not have been hampered by a screen placed at the outer edges of the proscenium.

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