Monday, February 4, 2013

Servant of two styles, but Master of one

The cast of The Servant of Two Masters.

It's hard to argue with comic virtuosity; and certainly the Yale Rep production of The Servant of Two Masters (at ArtsEmerson through Feb. 10) is comically virtuosic. Although is it really a Yale Rep production?  Fans of the late Theatre de la Jeune Lune may feel differently; with Jeune Lune mainstay Stephen Epp in the lead (as Truffaldino), working with a director and several actors from that company, this amounts to a kind of revival of the style of that Minneapolis theatrical landmark.

To many, that's good news, but I have to admit I'm not an unalloyed fan of the Jeune Lune aesthetic. If you are, of course, more power to you, and trust me, you'll love this show. But if you're more like me (and I'm like about half the audience at opening night, I'd argue) the Jeune Lune manner begins to seem like too much of a good thing after about an hour or so. After that, I confess I remained bemused, but slightly bored, by the cast's antics (even when they showered raspberries on the ART's Pippin, which actually became a punchline).  But then I tune out at Three Stooges festivals, too. It was only toward the finish, though, when I really felt the Leunies were trampling over author Carlo Goldoni, that I began to get a little irritated.

Still, since Jeune Lune claims a kind of intellectual pedigree, it's worth pointing out the madness in their method. What Goldoni did was integrate the the techniques of the classic commedia dell'arte into a longer narrative arc - his plot for Servant is ridiculously over-complicated, but it does give almost all the classic commedia characters a chance to shine, and what's more, it evoke themes that were highly salient in his day (and would reach their highest pitch in Beaumarchais and The Marriage of Figaro).

Thus there was an inevitable tension between Goldoni's goals and the short attention spans of commedia fans; indeed in the earliest drafts of the script, improvisatory cadenzas by the likes of Truffaldino were clearly bracketed off from the action. That boundary between romantic narrative and comic free-style blurred in later iterations, it's true - but it's also true that Jeune Lune has claimed the whole text for pure commedia, and simply ignored the resulting problem of diminishing comic returns.

Which means that basically, Goldoni gets the shaft from the Yale Rep. Director Christopher Bayes has done this kind of thing before - he meted out the same treatment to Hitchcock in The 39 Steps - but that became a hit, too; there's clearly an audience that loves to see narrative and character given a kick in the baggy pants. For the record, though, the hijinks Bayes and his team have dreamed up this time are more inspired than they were in that earlier production. There is plenty here that's plenty imaginative; my favorite moment came when Truffaldino and Smeraldina wrapped themselves in the curtains of Bayes' impromptu proscenium (at top), and then instantly transformed the rumpled drapes into the sheets of a marriage bed. The physical production was likewise seductive; Chuan-Chi Chan's lighting was ravishing (fireflies that morphed into stars was another magical moment), and Valerie Therese Bart's over-ripe, lived-in costumes were just right.

Pantalone presides over a comic duel in The Servant of Two Masters.

The tireless cast was likewise brilliant in its broadness (in an added bonus, it turned out everybody could sing, too!). Epp was endlessly inventive, but I felt he was somewhat upstaged by the wonderful Allen Gilmore, who gave Pantalone a whacked-out warmth that the production generally lacked (indeed, his "I've fallen down and I can't get up" schtick was the only thing in the whole show that truly broke me up).  But I was also impressed, if not quite charmed, by Sarah Agnew's no-nonsense Beatrice, who was for some reason in love with Randy Reyes's really weird Florindo (but then all real romance was out the window in this version - the resulting gap in mood was occasionally filled by some lovely singing). I likewise liked Liz Wisan's hearty Smeraldina in the abstract, but felt that somehow she never attained the status in the story that she should properly have won.

This was because Smeraldina's virtues - her worldly wisdom, her earthy tastes - had no traction in Bayes' meta-beyond-meta environment.  One minute the production had both feet in Goldoni, but the next it was slipping on banana peels from every single one of the Norman Lear comedies of the 70's. The rush of pop culture sampling never stopped - in fact it became its own end. Thus, though truly encyclopedic in its frame of reference, this Two Masters ended up flat in its effect; indeed, the most interesting thing about Goldoni's play - the way in which the romantic leads are none too comfortable with their servants' romantic freedom - seemed awkwardly irrelevant in this version. Which made me wonder - are we truly freer than Smeraldina and Truffaldino, or have we simply come to terms with our slavery in a new way? At various times in the production, Epp would ask the crowd incredulously, "Is this the play?  Has the play started yet?"  Well, it hadn't; even though for some the laughter never ended, the play itself never began.

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