The Seattle Repetory opened its 2013-2014 season of Venetian Playwright Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters.” On a chilled, clear October night, the crowd hummed with high spirits and anticipation of the play, adapted by Constance Congdon and translated by Christina Sibul, all under the direction of Christopher Bayes. The rich, jostled rhythm of conversation pierced with occasional laughter created an atmosphere befitting the raucous, celebratory settings of the play itself—and the Repertory’s fiftieth anniversary.
“The Servant” is beloved of well-versed audiences aching for a good laugh. This was communion, exactly what Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni aimed for when resurrecting in a new light the tradition of Commedia Dell’arte with “ease and naturalness,” as Voltaire put it. In the late eighteenth century, Commedia troupes could constantly adapt their material to the local audience, changing jokes based on the social and political matters of each town and region. The room for improvisation is what makes Commedia so funny. To quote director Bayes, “Commedia isn’t funny because it’s improvised. It’s funny because it is possible to improvise.”
A precocious playwright from age eight, Goldoni was also influenced heavily by the works of Moliere and became famous for his own mature but farcical, cosmopolitan style, which he established even in his early works, including The Servant Of Two Masters. Carrying the torch of his predecessors, Goldoni’s approach helped pave the way for nineteenth century realism. As a blooming centerfold writer inspired by the immediacy of Commedia, Goldoni sought a more universal portrayal of life among the growing middle class of Italy.
The play’s universality persists under the direction of Bayes, even in rainy, downtown Seattle, centuries and half a world away. Bayes was introduced to “The Servant” in 1996 by director Giorgio Strehler. The new adaptation is outrageously funny, hip and upbeat, and faithfully tailored to a Seattle audience. Congdon introduces modern lingo, current pop songs, and even the current government shutdown seamlessly.
But what would any humor relate without its actors? Well, nothing. And so we are presented with Seattle’s finest—think of Jesse J Perez portraying Florindo as a current day suave Captain Morgan drenched in sex appeal. Liz Wisan plays his lover Beatrice, full of spice and adventure. To stabilize her financial situation for her and Florindo, she dresses as her deceased brother to collect the dowry from a marriage planned shortly before his death.
When Beatrice arrives in Venice with her servant Truffaldino, played by Steven Epp, her plans swerve as the servant seeks for better pay, making Florindo his other master. Confusion ensues as Truffaldino rushes about on errands to appease the growling in his stomach—perhaps his one and only true master.
The troubled host caught in the middle of a whirl wind is Pantalone, played by Allen Gilmore, whose characterization resembles closely the Grinch as Santa Claus, continually rubbing his hands as his frenzy grows. His daughter Clarice, embodied by Adina Verson, is betrothed to the deceased brother Beatrice, but smitten with her new love, the fumbling Silvio, played precisely by Eugene Ma. Pantalone’s confusion and Beatrice’s impersonation brings scandal and shame to her heart’s new plans.
The sky begins falling around Pantalone as he struggles to keep both his honor and pockets of wealth secure. Truffaldino, with his every finger in every pie, continues to create an ever more chaotic scene, but in spite of himself he pulls it all together, finding that his hunger was really for love—namely for the love of the beauteous servant girl Smeraldina, played by level headed Julie Briskman. The cast worked in harmony to create this hilarious madness that overwhelmed the theatre. The characters consciously broke the fourth wall and this only added another dimension to the deep comedic twist. There were laughs and cheers from the audience the entire night.
The play was a hit, with music and madness, song and dance. “Without the possibility of complete disaster, there’s no possibility of great triumph,” Bayes comments on his piece. Though he was not in attendance opening night, I am sure that he heard the cheers from audience members as he and his cast achieved that triumph, leaving the audience members in a laughter-induced euphoria of epic proportions.
“The Servant of Two Masters” plays through October 20 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.