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Theatre in Review: The Servant of Two Masters (Theatre for a New Audience)

Liam Craig, Steven Epp. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

For pure magic, you can't do much better than the opening few minutes of Christopher Bayes' staging of Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte classic. We begin in darkness; there is just enough light to show that scenic designer Katherine Akiko Day has built an attractively crumbling proscenium-arch stage in TFANA's sleek new space; onstage are several large objects, covered in drop cloths. An upstage door opens, briefly letting in a blindingly bright flood of sunshine; the door slams and in wander a pair of men conversing in Italian, namechecking the details of the commedia format -- masks, trunks, an old theatre. ("Hilarioso," one of them notes.) A trunk is opened and the lighting designer, Chuan-Chi Chan, contrives an effect by which the murky air is suddenly filled with the glow from hundreds of fireflies. As they recede upstage, string after string of colored lightbulbs in the house are illuminated. Then the stage lights come on, revealing a classic commedia curtain, a series of waist-high buildings that form a miniature Venetian cityscape, and, upstage, a drop depicting a vivid blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds -- plus a stage full of actors, ready to shake a leg and sing a song about the endless party that is life, before committing humorous mayhem. In a few minutes, an abandoned theatre has come alive.

There's also a lovely moment at the end, when Truffaldino, the servant of the title, and Smeraldina, his lady love, are framed in sidelight on a darkened stage, looking up at a star-filled sky. Between those two moments, however, The Servant of Two Masters is a pretty flat glass of prosecco. As the program notes, Goldoni was the master of commedia dell'arte, the comic style, popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, that applied improvisation to standard scenarios filled with stock characters. The Servant of Two Masters marks the beginning of Goldoni's attempt at codifying one of his shows in a recorded text. It remains a freeform genre however, and any production depends on a cast of skilled comics who can enliven the action with inventive bits of physical business and a steady stream of ad libs. (If you've ever seen Bob Hope wisecracking his way through such historical epics as Monsieur Beaucaire or Casanova's Big Night, you have a good idea of the required approach.)

But the jokes, at least at the performance I attended -- the script leaves plenty of room for improv, so results may vary from night to night -- rarely landed. Or they landed, all right, but mostly with a thud. The gags break down into several categories: cracks about Trump, Clinton, and Anthony Weiner, which, right now, seem to be acting as audience depressants; shout-outs to Broadway musicals, including The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, and, of course, Hamilton; and random comments about the likes of Wikileaks, Carol Burnett's theme song, and Joan Crawford's famous dictum about wire hangers. At one point, somebody asks, "Where's the beef?" and an appalled Truffaldino snaps, "What is this, 1987?" before launching into a series of that decade's famous advertising tropes. ("I can't believe it's not butter. I've fallen and I can't get up. He likes it -- Hey, Mikey!") But really, the jokes would be funnier if the rest of the gags -- the election commentary aside -- didn't feel like something from a time capsule of the late 20th century.

There is a smattering of more up-to-date references. There's a comment about the Fair Wage On Stage movement currently roiling Actors' Equity (which now appears to be settled), and Truffaldino, urging the audience to keep up with the plot, says, "If you guys can sit through a repertory of Ibsen and Strindberg and now you dodged a bullet with Hamlet, just saying!" He's talking about TFANA's last two productions, A Doll's House and The Father, as well as a planned staging of the Danish tragedy that was cancelled after a falling-out between the theatre and the production's creative team. Really, I can't remember the last time a comedy was so intently focused on the season subscribers -- but, like so many gags here, it assumes that merely naming something will earn a laugh.

As Truffaldino, the scampish servant who suddenly finds himself doubly employed -- I won't try to trace the plot, which is as tortured as the longest Venetian canal -- Steven Epp has a blessedly light touch, effortlessly bouncing around the stage and switching out personas like so many carnival masks. If only his material were better, this might be a convulsive evening. In a cast filled with would-be cutups, the ladies fare the best, among them Adina Verson as Clarice, the ingénue, who, despite a curly coiffure and a dress that makes her look like vanilla merengue, pursues marriage with the tenacity of a Civil War general; Emily Young as Smeraldina, Clarice's servant, who isn't above decking her mistress by way of telling her to snap out of it; and Liz Wisan as Beatrice, the heroine in male disguise, who stands at the center of this morass of plot and counterplot. All three join for a rare moment of delight, delicately singing a trio while a swarm of puppet butterflies hovers around them.

And there is the odd hilarious gag, for example when Truffaldino tosses away a letter -- the plot is loaded with letters -- triggering a series of sound effects more suitable to a car crash. (Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts are the able sound designers.) The costumes, by Valérie Thérèse Bart, are often amusing in themselves, aided by Dave Bova's hair and makeup design. But too often the production's anything-for-a-laugh approach -- its willingness to try anything: the good, the bad, and the totally vulgar -- merely seems like a lack of discrimination. I'm thinking, in particular, of a longish, unfunny sequence in which Truffaldino, confronted by his two masters, poops in his pants.

If you've seen One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean's riotous rewrite of The Servant of Two Masters, set among the seedier denizens of 1960s Brighton, then you know how this sort of comedy is supposed to work. This version, which has gone through many hands -- translation by Christina Sibul, adaptation by Constance Congdon, further adaptation by Bayes and Epp -- goes through the correct motions without producing the expected audience hysteria. It looks like a farce, it acts like a farce, but somehow the laughs have vanished -- gone with the fireflies, perhaps. -- David Barbour

(18 November 2016)

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