09 July 2012

'The Servant of Two Masters' (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2012)

I made a short visit to my mother in Washington, D.C., over the summer solstice and while there, we took in two shows. The first was the revival of Carlo Goldoni’s classic commedia-infused Servant of Two Masters by the winner of the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony, the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (The other performance we saw was the National Tour of the hit Broadway musical Memphis at the Kennedy Center. That ROT report will follow this one at the end of the week.) Commedia dell’arte, the 16th- and 17th-century improvised comedy form that sprang up in Italy virtually out of nowhere—it bears some similarity to the low Roman comedies that were popular entertainment in the decades before the end of the empire, but the gap between the end of the Roman period and the early Renaissance is far too wide for the influence to be direct—is silly, ribald—what Jane Horwitz described as “bawdy—not dirty” in the Washingtonian—and physical. The stories are stock and little more than scenarios upon which the actors—there were no directors or playwrights—could hang slapstick hijinks, caricatures of local figures, jokes, clown routines, acrobatics, and social or political satire. Sophisticated they weren’t, but it took immense skill to pull them off (commedia dell’arte can be translated as ‘comedy of skills’) and keep them rolling from gag to gag (known as lazzi), with rudimentary scenery—they toured and performed on wagon stages set up in streets and squares—few props, basic costumes that were usually symbolic of the stock characters which everyone recognized immediately, and masks that covered the top half of the faces of many of the actors and which were also iconic for certain roles. The success of the commedia troupes soon influenced the contemporary theater in France, finding its way into the plays of Molière and his contemporary comic playwrights, and into England, where its remnants can be seen even today in the Punch and Judy puppet shows popular among children all over the country.

By the 18th century, the power of the commedia troupes was waning, and theatrical practice and taste had refined enough to make the bawdy and coarse stage work of commedia dell’arte less acceptable, especially at court or in court-sponsored performances with the dawn of the Enlightenment. On the Italian stage especially, but all over Europe as well, opera was becoming the favored theatrical form (though the comic operas of Mozart and others borrowed heavily from the commedia and its descendants). The improvised commedia fell out of favor, though the slapstick humor—the very term comes from a common prop of the performances, the slap stick—and stock characters like Harlequin (known in Italian as Arlecchino), the crafty servant in his distinctive diamond-patterned costume; Pantalone, the foolish old man; Il Dottore, the quack who spouted indecipherable Latin; Pierrot and Pierrette, the pastoral lovers; and several others—remained popular with audiences. One way to keep the form alive for audiences was for playwrights to take up the style and the characters and craft scripted plays with them. That way the humor and situations could be repeated but under more control than the anarchic stage of commedia permitted. Among the most accomplished and popular dramatists of the 18th-century was Carlo Goldoni (1707-93), easily one of the most prolific writers of the classic or any other period, with over 300 scripts attributed to his authorship. In 1743, Goldoni assembled several commedia characters and situations in his Il servitore di due padroni, revised a decade later (to formalize the comic action, based on the improvisations the actors devised in the 1743 version). It’s been a staple of theater companies both here and in Europe, including a 1947 interpretation by Giorgio Strehler for his Piccolo Teatro di Milano which is still in the troupe’s repertory even 15 years after Strehler’s death (I saw it at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005). The current Broadway hit One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean is also based on Servant.

The STC revival of The Servant of Two Masters is an adaptation by playwright Constance Congdon from a translation by Christina Sibul, first presented by Hartford Stage in 1996, directed by Bartlett Sher (renowned now for Lincoln Center’s South Pacific revival, among other productions). The STC staging was mounted originally at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010 under the direction of Christopher Bayes, who played Brighella in the Hartford début. (Bayes, an expert in commedia acting, was the head of Physical Acting at the Yale School of Drama in 2010.) My mother and I caught the STC presentation on Wednesday evening, 20 June, at the Lansburgh Theatre in downtown Washington. The Washington performances started on 15 May, opening to the press on 21 May, and closed on 24 June (after two extensions of just over two weeks). The production has played other cities in the U.S. since New Haven and apparently continues to tour with largely the same cast.

In the wrong hands, modern performances of commedia dell’arte can be tedious, exercises in studied acrobatic gags (Peter Marks described it as “calcified frivolity” in the Washington Post) and hoary lazzi dragged up from the days of vaudeville and golden-age TV variety. “Clever” purveyors throw in current political and pop-culture references—because all theater students know that the Renaissance troupes used the performances to comment on local goings-on and topical scandals and gossip. (At STC, for instance, Nancy Pelosi and Rick Santorum came in for passing mentions, along with a questionable reference to Whitney Houston's death.) Unless the performers are especially talented at improvisation and physical comedy—modern-day zanni (the clownish characters like Harlequin and Scapino) such as, say, Bill Irwin or David Shiner (coming next season, happily, to the other STC, New York’s Signature Theater Company)—making the shtick seem organic and spontaneous, the whole proceeding can feel forced and inauthentic, like the acting, if you’ll pardon the comparison, in porn movies. The Piccolo Teatro company is, of course, well-practiced in the arts of their forebears and the stage work on display in Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters was stunning, probably the closest I’ll ever come to a theatrical trip back in time. (I recall that the supertitles at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall were so far away from the performers that I had to choose either to read the dialogue, spoken in Italian, or watch the action. I chose to watch, and even though I didn’t understand any of what the actors said, I could follow the simple plot and all the lazzi with no problem. I think, even if I’d tried to follow the supertitles instead, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my eyes from the stage work—it was too fascinating and engaging.)

Congdon’s adaptation (or Bayes’s version of it) starts in Italian as two stage hands enter a darkened stage. They open a trunk and tiny lights—perhaps fireflies or stardust, but definitely magic—soar upwards into the fly space and float around the stage, courtesy of lighting designer Chuan-Chi Chan. That makes what follows an enchanted play-within-a-play. Under the spell, we’re transported to Venice and the house of Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) whose daughter, Clarice (Danielle Brooks), was to be married to Federigo Rasponi. But Federigo’s reported dead, confirmed by Brighella (Liam Craig), so Pantalone now promises Clarice to Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen), the infantile son of Il Dottore (Don Darryl Rivera), and the engagement’s proclaimed. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and Smeraldina (Liz Wisan), Pantalone’s servant, ushers in Truffaldino (Steven Epp), announcing that he’s come on behalf of his master to request an audience. His master is, of all people, Federigo—and the wedding is called off. All isn’t what it appears, of course, since "Federigo" is really Beatrice (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), Federigo’s cross-dressing sister. (“She rides horseback!” declared Brighella earlier.) Beatrice has come to find her lover, Florindo (Jesse J. Perez), who’s responsible for her brother’s death and has fled to Venice. Got all that?

Well, wait—’cause you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The real focus of Servant is Truffaldino, the title character who is a close cousin of Harlequin and essentially behaves like him. Because he’s always hungry, the wily servant agrees impulsively to serve Florindo, who shows up at Brighella’s inn where Federigo/Beatrice is also staying, when his first “master” leaves him too long without a meal. The farce ensues from Truffaldino’s attempts to serve each master without revealing to one that the other exists—along with his continuous attempts to score some vittles. (In the Strehler version, there was a truly hilarious scene where Arlecchino—as Truffaldino was called in that production—serves two completely different dinners to each master in separate dining rooms. This business was only suggested in Congdon’s rendition.) As to which lovers are united and what becomes of Truffaldino, I’ll let you all find out. One hint (no real spoiler, though): This isn’t a tragedy or even a tragicomedy. (The death of Beatrice’s brother at the hand of her lover is pretty much forgotten, except as a plot complication.) Happiness is the goal.

Generally speaking, American actors aren’t heavily trained in physical comedy and commedia style. There are specialty studios and troupes that work in that vein, and some actors are naturally adept at it, but it’s not what we do here very much. Bayes’s cast does an excellent job of performing the lazzi and getting into the world of commedia dell’arte, both in spirit and in body. Bayes didn’t include much acrobatics in his performance text, so I don’t know how skilled the actors are in that arena, but they handled the physical comedy adeptly and the verbal style smoothly. Still, I felt that everyone was trying a little too hard, including Bayes. There weren’t exactly quotation marks around the jokes, but some were pushed forth a bit too earnestly, especially the ones that had obviously been inserted specifically for the Washington audiences (references to Ford’s Theater; snippets of songs from The Music Man, playing at the Arena Stage across town; references to O’Neill’s lo-o-o-ooong Strange Interlude, the previous show at STC earlier in the spring; a joke about congress which included directions to the Capitol, a few blocks from the Lansburgh; and lines about Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, two famous neighborhoods of the Nation’s Capital that are a mile or two above the theater). This kind of jokiness may have started in rehearsals as ad-libs, but in performance they read as practiced and prepared.

Now, while Bayes’s interpretation of Servant was fun and enjoyable, it was very much in the vein of a studied effort. The production was also what Barbara Mackay of the Washington Examiner called “a mixed bag of acting styles and musical styles, a spectacular blurring of the lines between 16th-century Italy and 21st-century America.” She saw that as “its appeal,” and I don’t have a problem with that in theory, but it struck me as carefully selected and approved, not ad-libbed and organic. The actors didn’t look unnatural doing the farce, but the lazzi and the verbal jokes all had the feel of material that had been carefully invented and inserted in the performance text with forethought and deliberation. Commedia was largely improvised and the humor was spontaneous; even when Goldoni formalized the gags, they were still supposed to look as if the actors were making them up as they went along—or, at least, just before they went on stage. I won’t say that Bayes’s cast wasn’t adept with the material, but it didn’t look terribly organic. (In comparison with the Piccolo Teatro staging, it looked downright stiff!) In the case of a face-slap that’s supposed to snowball into a spontaneous, domino-like chain reaction, the routine looked choreographed and set up. Now, of course it has to be set up—we all know that—but it’s not supposed to look like it’s all planned and rehearsed. I can almost picture the Marx Brothers inserting such a routine into one of their movies (I’m way too young to have seen any of their stage shows) and making it look like a crazy accident, even though the Marxes were famous for carefully rehearsing their performances down to the gesture.

At the same time, I guess in order to animate the two-hour-25-minute production (including one intermission), the whole performance was a bit too antic for my taste. I’m not a big fan of clowning (I once reviewed a clown festival and had to admit this up front), so a show that’s mostly geared to showing off clown routines gets old on me fast. I like “real” commedia when it’s done right, but that’s rare generally and even rarer in the U.S.; when clowning is simply substituted for lazzi—whether 17th-century period gags or their modern equivalents—I can get enervated quickly. That’s largely what happened for me at the STC’s Servant of Two Masters. It was well done, but not inspired.

Don’t get the impression, however, that the Yale production was cheap-jack or thrown together. Katherine Akiko Day’s set was rudimentary, but that’s in the style of commedia. The stage for the most part was bare, with a wooden frame in the center for the plain, worn, pale yellow curtain that represented the wagon stage of the 17th century. (Goldoni’s play would have been presented in a conventional theater, of course, and we must remember that this production is set up as a commedia street show inside a proscenium theater.) The action of Servant took place in front of this frame; up stage, behind the curtain, were tiny little set pieces representing the town, the playing area being an evocation of the town square. (STC’s program doesn’t tell us where the play takes place, but Goldoni’s plays are usually set in Venice, his birthplace. It’s really irrelevant, in any case. Commedia characters each had their own places of birth and their dress and accents were part of the iconography that identified them—but we wouldn’t really recognize that in the 21st-century U.S. anyway.) 

Valérie Thérèse Bart’s colorful costumes were both period- and role-specific, with Pantalone’s outfit harking back to the 16th century as it traditionally did while the rest wore 18th-century garb that evoked their status (peasant, servant, wealthy middle class, and so on) and personality (Clarice was frilly and pink, Silvio foppish and childlike). The half-masks worn by some of the zanni (Truffaldino, Pantalone, Il Dottore—only certain roles, known as “masks,” were traditionally masked) looked like representations of the depictions of commedia masks (no actual ones have survived because they were made of perishable leather), but they were all black rather than painted and their use didn’t much enhance the performance. I don’t know how much mask work the cast did in preparation of the show—none is indicated in the program and no one is credited with this technique (though the masks themselves were designed by Renzo Antonello)—but my impression is that the actors weren’t drilled or trained in mask use and the masks were included only as period-accurate costume accessories. (Masked acting is a very special skill which few modern troupes demand. Even Eric Bentley, in the notes to his edition of classic Italian theater, advises modern western casts not to use them. I’ve published an article on the subject on ROT: “The Magic of Masks,” 17 September 2011.)

The two-man musical combo (Chris Curtis and Robertson Witmer), playing several instruments each including accordion, percussion, and fiddle (plus, among other items, a saw played with a violin bow), almost became additional characters in the performance, interacting with the actors with looks and glances from time to time. Their music, which Curtis also composed with Aaron Halva in a gallimaufry of styles, added a soundtrack to the performance that unified the antic frolicking, and the musicians contributed sound effects to the slapstick antics as well. They contributed immensely to the playful atmosphere of the production, just as I assume the 17th-century musicians might have.

Bayes kept everything moving at a fairly frenetic pace, which is in keeping also with the nature of the play. Commedia isn’t a pensive sort of comedy and the verbiage isn’t of the witty variety that requires a moment to contemplate either in the saying or the hearing. Technically, the performance was excellent: well-conceived and –executed all around. The company all did creditable jobs limning their roles, and there were even some amusing and timely twists on the traditional parts. As Florindo, an avatar of Il Capitano, the braggart soldier, Jesse J. Perez became a Spanish (the text was amended to indicate he’s “foreign”) fop, with a long, flowing wig (he takes it off once or twice) to protect his vanity, and a cavalier’s large-brimmed hat (think Three Musketeers or something—he’s even called Puss-’n–Boots once and Captain Morgan—of the rum fame—also gets a mention). He comes off a bit fey, intentionally, I assume, which is balanced by Rachel Spencer Hewitt’s Federigo/Beatrice, who isn’t so much butch as just very straight. (I wonder if Hewitt was channeling Glenn Close from Albert Nobbs.) The young lover, Silvio, who’s usually pretty much a nonentity, is here portrayed by a slightly chubby Andy Grotelueschen is a sort of Baby Huey in short pants (they’re really wide-legged, loosely-bound breeches, but they give the impression of a Little Lord Fauntleroy brat). Grotelueschen often speaks in an almost-whine and comes close to stomping his foot in petulant impatience when he doesn’t get what he wants.

The casting of the old men was perfectly in line with tradition: Pantalone, in the person of Allen Gilmore, was tall and skinny with a bit of a pot belly under his red gown, towering over the short, round Dottore of Don Darryl Rivera (who could double as Danny Devito with a little make-up). Unfortunately, little was made of this paring except the visual when they stood on stage next to one another. Danielle Brooks’s Clarice, Pantalone’s daughter and the fiancée of, first, Silvio and then “Federigo,” was a little too much of a flibbertigibbet (and she shouted too much for my likes), and Liz Wisan as the servant Smeraldina seemed rather colorless in the midst of all the antics going on, hardly a match for Truffaldino, her traditional suitor.

The center of the play is Truffaldino, the title servant who tries to serve two masters. As an avatar of Harlequin, he’s the trickster, the schemer, who’s eternally hungry and always on the look-out for a way to pick up a little extra (mostly food). Steven Epp, who’s been a colleague of Bayes since the 1980s when they both were at Minneapolis’ Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, a now-defunct avant-garde troupe, handled him well enough as far as the quick-wittedness and slapstick is concerned; he was agile enough when it came to performing the lazzi. (Until I read about Epp’s and Bayes’s connection, I didn’t realize that I’d seen some of the director’s work there in 1989.) But there didn’t seem much depth to the work. Okay, I know that commedia isn’t deep comedy—I said so, didn’t I—but I mean in the stage work. It isn’t that Epp wasn’t committed to the work or didn’t put in effort—he did. But it all seemed rote to me, like he’d been doing it all so long—and I guess he had, since Mom and I saw the play near the end of its Washington run, following a month’s run in New Haven two years ago. The upshot was, I’m sorry to report, that Truffaldino just wasn’t very funny. He mirrored the overall presentation as far I was concerned—perfectly competent but resulting in no more than occasional chuckles or obligatory laughs.

The press overall was lauditory. Not a few made allusions to the Three Stooges (not a selling point for me, admittedly), the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and Abbott and Costello—though I think they were overselling the show. Opening Roll Call’s review by wryly observing, “Washington, D.C., is the perfect backdrop for a commedia dell’arte production, which requires the actors to wear masks, keep their identity fluid and wreak havoc,” Neda Semnani described the STC classic revival as “perfectly, cleverly, wonderfully insane.” “With a comedy as outrageous and fast-paced as this one, the audience—and perhaps even the actors—will never really know what’s going to happen next,” wrote Semnani. “And, in the end, that is the very reason to go.” In the Post, Marks called Bayes’s Servant “deliriously happy-making” and “one of the most gleeful Shakespeare company offerings of the past 10 years.” The director and cast “consistently locate Goldoni’s sweet spot,” he wrote, even as he acknowledged that “it’s in the nature of such carbonated mischief that some of the zaniness veers out of bounds.” In the Washington City Paper, Chris Klimek described the production as a “manic new resuscitation of the 18th century farce” which still had “plenty of amiable excess to enjoy.” Mackay’s Examiner review began with her characterization above, and concluded with an invocation of some of the great comics of a more recent past, saying, “Bayes offers a look into a historical period otherwise unknown to us, and we can understand what commedia audiences may have felt” and Washingtonian magazine’s Horowitz asserted “that Servant “has everything—high hilarity, low comedy, breakneck slapstick, fine singing, a bit of dancing, and a dash of fish juggling” and summed up with “It's simply a riot.” Calling the adaptation “commedia-lite,” however, Kate Wingfield of Metro Weekly warned that “if you like your humor telegraphed, your slapstick shameless and your gags spelled out, yelled and repeated, you will find the proceedings pants-wettingly funny.”

The blogosphere largely agreed with the printed press. Amanda Gunther started out with the observation, “The audience’s laughter was shaking the rafters” in the Lansburgh (though I’m not sure the theater actually has any) in DC Metro Theater Arts, dubbing the production “an uproarious faction of fools.” Gunther especially praised “the way the characters constantly physicalize the textual metaphors they are speaking.” In the end, she reminded her readers that “everything is also enchanted” in the STC Servant. On Maryland Theatre Guide, Elliot Lanes labeled the STC production “a commedia dell’arte lover’s delight,” observing , “The ensemble works beautifully as a whole.” “Director Christopher Bayes and company have done a yeoman’s job of giving us a hilarious evening in the theatre,” Lanes concluded. In his Baltimore Sun blog, Tim Smith called the show “terrifically clever, offering a joy ride of witty dialogue and physical shtick that never runs out of steam.” “I defy you to remember any cares and woes,” he challenged his readers, “while spending a few hours” at the Lansburgh. Taking another tack, Hunter Styles praised the performers in DC Theatre Scene because they “act like children” as “they unbottle their most primal, outsized emotions with such smarts and skill that it’s hard to not flash-back to the days of recess.” “Charmingly vulgar, hugely aerobic, and strewn with nifty low-key tricks,” Styles said, Servant was a “finely tuned and divinely funny” show.

[Since I mentioned the Strehler production of Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters several times in this report, I’ve decided to post the 2005 report on the Piccolo Teatro’s performance at the Lincoln Center Festival for comparison’s sake. Come back to ROT in the coming weeks to see what I said about that production seven years ago and how I thought it differed from Christopher Bayes’s interpretation.]


  1. On 4 July, the New York Times reported that the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington is engaged in a legal dispute with the Lansburgh Theater, the landlord of the stage company's second home where "Servant of Two Masters" played. The issue is a large increase in the rent (from $70,000 to $480,000 a year) the landlord wants to charge the theater company. At the time of the report, the Shakespeare Theatre had refused to pay the increase and the Landsburgh Theatre had threatened eviction. The company has sued the theater and the matter remains unresolved.

    The action concerning the Lansburgh has no effect on the company's use of its other theater, Sidney Harman Hall, which has a different landlord.

  2. .thanks for sharing