by SOPHIE KERMAN
When a play’s design can elicit gasps within the first five minutes, and when it can keep an audience of seasoned theater-goers laughing for over two hours, it puts the reviewer in a truly difficult position. Despite wanting to steer clear of cliche, there is no way around it: how else to describe the Yale Repertory Theatre‘s production of The Servant of Two Masters, if not as an utter delight, a joy to behold, and – yes, I’ll say it – a triumph?
The Servant of Two Masters is an old-school comedy by the Italian Carlo Goldoni, and by old-school, I mean over 250 years old. But the play has more in common with “Saturday Night Live” than it does with what you’d imagine from a classic comedy. Its genre, commedia dell’arte, took stock characters (the miserly father, the over-dramatic lovers, the pompous doctor, and the bumbling Harlequin figure) and placed them in new scenarios that the actors would use as comedic springboards, much in the same way that more recent comedians, from Gilda Radner to Tracy Morgan, have continued to get laughs from familiar characters.
The plot and costuming of The Servant remain in the 18th century, with a web of marriage betrothals, cross-dressing, and mistaken identities that could have been resolved much more efficiently (though less hilariously) if everyone would just talk to each other instead of drawing their swords. Beatrice (Sarah Agnew), in love with the dashing Florindo (Jesse J. Perez), arrives in town dressed as her dead brother, who had been betrothed to the volatile Clarice (Adina Verson). Clarice is now hoping to marry a rather effeminate Silvio (Chivas Michael), whose blustering father (Don Darryl Rivera) must argue on Silvio’s behalf with Clarice’s father Pantalone (Allen Gilmore). Add in the mis-steps of the titular servant Truffaldino (Steven Epp) and his female counterpart Smeraldina (Liz Wisan), and you have a fast-paced comedy with so many moving parts that you may just need to take a moment to marvel at how smoothly and seamlessly it is all executed.
Although The Servant may seem thematically antiquated, the adaptation – by Constance Congdon, with further work by cast member Steven Epp and director Christopher Bayes – is peppered with so many contemporary references that you’ll quickly forget just how long ago it was written. The ensemble, which contains several Jeune Lune veterans, acts like it has been performing together for years, with slapstick bits that look so spontaneous that they seem unrehearsed.
Bayes’s direction also incorporates the music (performed by Aaron Halva and Carolyn Boulay), scenery (Katherine Akiko Day), and lighting (Chuan-Chi Chan) as essential ingredients to the spectacle, not simply peripheral components. The company’s interpretation actually makes the perfect case for why live theater is still relevant and irreplaceable – and why this kind of comedy has lasted for centuries – because so many of the jokes require you to be in the space for the punchline to land right.
This is a production that could easily be transported to any theater, regardless of the size, but its unpretentious irreverence thrives on the Guthrie Theater‘s proscenium stage. The large audience gives the actors a lot to play off of, and it feels refreshing to see such light-hearted, raunchy goofiness when you know that “A Christmas Carol” is playing right across the hall for the 38th year in a row. (This is, in fact, one item on a very long list of things that The Servant does not shy away from poking fun at.)
In my mind, a play has to be really excellent to merit a price of over $25 or a greater than 90-minute run time. This is both for commercial reasons, because a budget-oriented person could certainly choose to spend half the price and just go to the movies, and artistic ones, since shorter is often sweeter when it comes to holding an audience’s attention. The Servant of Two Masters not only deserves your time and money, but I would even go so far as to urge the broke and busy to make a specific point of heading down to the Guthrie and letting this energetic, pitch-perfect ensemble wipe away all thoughts of holiday stress. Make it a Christmas present to yourself. It is that good.
The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, adapted by Constance Congdon from a translation by Christina Sibul, at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55415. December 1, 2012 – January 20, 2013. Tickets $34-64 at www.guthrietheater.org.