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Goldoni at STC

Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) had an important influence on the history of comic opera, transferring the broad humor he adapted from the commedia dell'arte tradition to the opera buffa librettos he wrote for Galuppi, Piccinni, Haydn, and others. In his colorful Memoirs, Goldoni wrote about how, in 1743, an offer from Sacchi -- Antonio Sacco, a celebrated Truffaldino in the commedia improvisational style -- led to the creation of Arlecchino servitore di due padroni (The Servant of Two Masters, trans. Edward J. Dent). His initial sketches for the play left many of the scenarios for Sacchi and his players to improvise, the fruits of which Goldoni apparently incorporated into the completed form of the play, published a few years later. The production now showing at the Shakespeare Theater Company, seen on Sunday night, attempts to go back to that rough, physical form of humor -- the masks, traditional costumes (Harlequin and others), improvisation, slapstick (although without an actual batacchio, or slap stick), wisecracking servants (zanni) -- that gave us a whole vocabulary of comedy.

The text was adapted by Constance Congdon, from the English translation by Christina Sibul, revised by Congdon for the 2010 production at Yale Repertory Theater revived here. The staging is directed by Christopher Bayes, who teaches physical acting at Yale, and it crackles with energy that is as much physical -- foot stomps, dances, gags -- as it is verbal. While most of the text is kept -- including, happily, the Latin jokes inserted by the pompous Dottore, updated with salacious double-entendres -- the play is largely a new creation. After a prelude in broken Italian, during which a couple of workmen discover a magic box in a dusty vecchio teatro, the action begins to pulsate with the score created by a pair of musicians, Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva, on accordion and violin, with an array of other instruments (toy piano, percussion, even -- I think -- musical saw). Some charming visual effects -- floating lights like fireflies, flitting white butterflies, maybe one two many jokes with a big switch that turned out all the lights (lighting designed by Chuan-Chi Chen) -- lightened up the action, set mostly in front of a frame-hung curtain, reminiscent of a traveling commedia dell'arte performance (set design by Katherine Akiko Day).

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, At Shakespeare Theatre, a true master of its comic domain (Washington Post, May 22)

Barbara Mackay, The trouble with serving two masters (Washington Examiner, May 22)

Ben Brantley, Mistaken Identity May Be Closer Than It Appears (New York Times, April 18)
The fine cast is headed by Steven Epp as Truffaldino, the eponymous servant who gets himself into trouble by taking on a second employer in the hopes of feeding his ravenous appetite. He is not so much the clever servant who outwits his master -- the model for the Figaros and Leporellos of opera -- as one who gets himself into more and more trouble. He follows his first master, Beatrice (a supercilious Rachel Spencer Hewitt), to Venice where she, dressed as a man, seeks to regain some money from her father's business partner, the greedy Pantalone (crooked-bodied Allen Gilmore). The problem is that Pantalone's daughter, Clarice (a spoiled princess as played by Danielle Brooks), who was betrothed to Beatrice's brother, is really in love with Silvio (bratty, red-faced Andy Grotelueschen). The other problem is that, unbeknownst to Beatrice, her lover Florindo (an over-the-top Latin lover in the hands of Jesse J. Perez) has followed her to Venice and takes up Truffaldino as his servant. Of course, in a comedy, lovers are united, and even Truffaldino finds romance with Pantalone's serving girl, Smeraldina, played with equal flightiness by Liz Wisan. She and character tenor Don Daryll Rivera as the Dottore had the best turns in the couple of ensemble numbers, some of the most whimsical parts of the score. All in all, it is a fizzy version of a classic, with perhaps a few gags that are repeated a few too many times, but highly recommended.

This production continues at Shakespeare Theater Company through June 24. UPDATE: The run has been extended to July 8.

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