The Comedy of Maskers

WideEyedStudiosHedgerowTwoMastersEarlyHigh-12Timeless jokes come to life on the Hedgerow Theatre stage when The Servant of Two Masters gets to work from May 26 to June 26 in director Aaron Cromie’s world premiere adaptation of the Carlo Goldoni classic farce.

Producing Artistic Director Jared Reed plays Truffaldino, joined by Hedgerow Company members Zoran Kovcic as Pantalone; Allison Bloechl as Beatrice; Mark Swift as Silvio; Susan Wefel as the innkeeper, Brighella; Brock D. Vickers as Florindo; Josh Portera as Dr. Lombardi, Silvio’s father, and also the second waiter and porter; and Shaun Yates as the first waiter and porter. The cast is completed with guest artist Sarah Knittel as the maid Smeraldina; and guest artist Madalyn St. John as Clarice, Pantalone’s daughter and Silvio’s betrothed.

“This form still works today because it’s how we still work today. Actors like Robin Williams are given a script and make it their own, they riff, they bring their own take to the character and give the world something new about it. We recognize these characters as a culture. We say, ‘That guy’s funny’,and, ‘That guy gets mad,’ so let’s put them in a room and see what comes out. The form lives on because it is so versatile and relevant,” said Reed.

Goldoni first wrote The Servant of Two Masters in 1746. His original version was based on improvisation, but he revised it to make the characters more complex and had it printed in 1753. It retains, however, many of the traditional characteristics of its origin, such as physical comedy and general ongoing silliness, enhanced by clever wordplay. “It’s cartoons….It’s Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. We recognize folly and we laugh at it,” said Reed.  

The play opens at the home of Venetian merchant Pantalone with the celebration of his daughter Clarice’s engagement to her beloved Silvio. The festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Beatrice, a lady of Turin disguised as her twin brother Federigo–who was originally betrothed to Clarice before losing his life in a duel with Beatrice’s lover, Florindo–in the hopes of deceiving them long enough to collect the dowry owed to her brother. In the meantime, Florindo arrives in Venice after fleeing Turin to escape punishment for Federigo’s death. The title character is Truffaldino, a servant with an insatiable appetite who wants to double his intake of food, so he secretly takes jobs with both Beatrice and Florindo. He shuttles back and forth between assignments, receiving letters, messages, and money for “his master”, although he’s never sure which one they’re for. The escalating misunderstandings lead to multiple comical complications before all is resolved.

“Aaron and I were talking about what we could do with the talents of the company, and what we could create. It came up, with the success of One Man, Two Guvnors [Richard Bean’s acclaimed update of the play], ‘why not do the original Goldoni?’” said Reed.

The Commedia dell’arte (literally, “comedy of the profession”) was concerned mostly with tangled love intrigues and clever tricks to get money or outwit some simpleton. There were plotting maids, bragging captains, aged fathers and wily widows, all archetypes we recognize in an instant.

“People find truth done in a new and fresh way, funny… Comedy is truth you didn’t expect to have happen. I’ve always thought about it as ‘Comedy is tragedy viewed through the prism of time,” said Reed.

They’re directed by Cromie, who helmed the critically acclaimed Or, this past winter and has adapted the original Goldoni. The self-described multidisciplinary theatre artist is perfectly suited for the job, having studied at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California, and been involved in three previous productions of this play.

“Funny is funny no matter the era. So we recognize the connections of comedy, improv, and mask work and the stories come from a place of love. I’ve dedicated a part of my creative life to it, and the stories you can tell are endless,”  said Cromie.

The improvised Comedy of Masks, with a history that goes back to the days of ancient Rome, was frequently coarse and obscene. In the early eighteenth century there was an established English theatre and French theatre, but no real Italian theatre, as Goldoni himself observed. Goldoni made it his mission to give an artistic form to the spoken comedy.

“I’ve always had a love of this style. It’s the birth of cartoons: it’s fast-paced, it’s silly, it’s joyful and it’s meant to entertain people, and to celebrate our folly as human beings,” said Cromie.

The four traditional masks which appear in his plays are Pantalone, Il Dottore, Brighella and Arlecchino. Pantalone is the old Venetian merchant, wearing the dress of the sixteenth century. Traditionally he was senile and lascivious; Goldoni made him a model of respectability, while never losing sight of his comic character. Il Dottore represents the old man of the educated classes; he is a Doctor of Law of the University of Bologna, pompous and pedantic, and prone to bursts of irrelevant Latin. Brighella and Arlecchino come from Bergamo and represent the two types of servant, knave and fool. Truffaldino is also from Bergamo and is a variation of the typical stock character Arlecchino.

The Commedia style of improvisation required actors able to make a serious study of their parts; these disciplined comedians changed forever the standards of acting. The best of them stamped their characters with individuality, freshness and brilliance, and gave value to pieces which often were otherwise worthless. The Commedia dell’arte introduced the professional actor into Europe.

“Comedy is scientific. You have to have the timing and control over the audience to set up the beat, to set up the laugh. A painter has the luxury of painting what he or she feels, but with comedy we have to keep the audience in mind. We do the things that make us laugh, but we have to keep the pattern in mind: the content: the joke. We have to surprise them. We have to bring them truth at an extremity under pressure,” said Cromie.

Goldoni created a new form of comedy by taking the best elements of the improvised style of commedia dell’arte and adding witty dialogue in longer, more complete stories. Commedia dell’arte was primarily short scenarios with stock characters, featuring love triangles, mistaken identities, and disguises. It was the source of slapstick, with lots of physical comedy and an actual “slapstick” used to create a slapping sound.

As a boy, a toy theatre was the Goldoni’s favourite plaything, and plays his favourite reading. He was sent to school at Rimini and escaped back to Venice with a theatrical company; he later studied law at Pavia, but was expelled from his college because of a satire he wrote. He took his degree in law at Padua in 1731 and practised as a lawyer for some time at Venice. But the theatre always interested him more than the law, and from 1734 onwards he wrote regularly for the stage.

The importance of these typical stage characters, which enjoyed at least four centuries of popularity on the European boards, lies in the influence they had on the famous dramatists that followed. Already one can catch a breath of the Shakespearean comedies in the names of the heroes; and one can see that Molière, both as actor and author, learned much from this branch of Italian art. Its influence passed through Holberg into Denmark, where it became a powerful factor in shaping the romantic drama of a later age.

“It’s infectious and it’s fun. Maybe some kid will see this and want to make his own play, with his own jokes. So for the time being we’re telling the story and hopefully somebody will laugh and somebody will be inspired by what we do,” said Cromie.