I saw “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni, presented by The Guthrie Theater, based on a recommendation from a friend who was familiar with the actor who played Truffaldino in the play. This play falls within the classic Italian comedy style called “Commedia dell’arte” and it’s author, Carlo Goldoni, was a well educated and prolific writer who was very successful in this genre in the 18th century. This style of play is characterized by having a handful of well known “types” in every production (from merchant, doctor / lawyer / professional to lovers, etc.) and, originally, the scripts tended to be heavy on scene setting, but light on written dialog. The success of these plays was very much dependent on the energy of the actors and their ability to excel at improvisation.
I love Italian opera, am a fan of the professionalism of Guthrie Theater productions in general and would love to live a life of comedy, but I was a newbie to this well established genre, “Commedia dell’arte”. After a couple initial “what the devil…” moments, I quickly proceeded to snickers, guffaws, eye rolls and was soon quite sold and thoroughly enjoying the evening.
The cast was so full of energy, at times it seemed like I was watching a slightly sped up previously recorded version of the play. I was impressed that they could keep the level of energy up throughout the play, which almost all the seven primary actors did. My favorite two characters in the play were Truffaldino, played by Steven Epp and Il Dottore, played by Don Darryl Rivera. Steven Epp brought tremendous energy and excellent improvisation skills to the servant, Truffaldino and Don Darryl Rivera played the short, round, impatient, professional father with great humor and pomposity.
The set was simple, but effective, with a couple of lighting effects that made the audience “ohh” and “ahh” at the right times and some simple sound effects that continued repetition made funnier. Costumes and hair are often excellent at the Guthrie and this production was no exception. However, I must say that, as a writer, the single thing that fascinated me the most about “The Servant of Two Masters” was the language. I don’t speak any Italian, nor am I an expert of 18th century English, but I know when innuendo, jokes and double-edged meanings work in this time period. I think I must send my applause in two directions, to Constance Congdon for her adaptation of this work, and to the actors, for well played and placed verbiage and ad-lib lines. Huzzah to you both!
For me, this production worked on so many levels. It is classic Italian stage work that intrigued the actor, singer, verbal lover in me, but it is also accessible to people that would never sit through an opera or who might be bored to tears with a non-English language production of a 200 year old work. Take your Mom, take your teenager, take your boyfriend. I think they’ll all leave laughing.