By Bob Shuman

Since before election day, Theatre for a New Audience has been improvising unexpected contemporary commedia dell-arte, along with Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center (now playing until December 4).  Adapted by Constance Congdon, from a translation by Christina Sibul, with further adaptation by Christopher Bayles and Steven Epp, this classic was written in the 1740s and published in 1753, but has not been presented in New York City since the 1970s, except as One Man, Two Guvnors, a 2012 modern adaptation.  The play uses bold, stock commedia characters of primary colors, like the aged Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) and a variation of Harlequin, Truffaldino (Steven Epp), and situations that are comparable to those found in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. The new-old show, which is set into rollicking motion when a young bride-to-be (Clarice Verson)—and her father and circle–are told that her betrothed has died, uses half-masks, onstage musicians (Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), and ad-libbing, with topical references that Bayes, the director of the current production, believes keeps commedia alive by “not treating the text preciously but by remembering its roots in improvisation”—the conviction was put to a test in the last month, when The Servant of Two Masters needed sudden readjustment.  Most in New York City, if not in the country, via fake news, media bias–including skewed coverage from The New York Times–as well as other attempts at voter suppression, like on Facebook, believed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Even Goldoni’s new adaptation had been brought into the hype, employing the easy nightly probability of skewering Republican figures, such as Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie, and Satan (Donald Trump).  Then, the vote didn’t turn out in swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina had stopped playing along. Overnight, the nation went from blue to red and Republicans, from deplorable to predominant. servant2

The educationally entitled, left-leaning theatremakers,  animating an eighteenth-century art form, usually more talked about than seen, were caught up short.  They had found their way into a production that, past its due-date, immediately showed its age and obsolescence. Like a bride left at the altar, other arrangements needed to be made–fast.   Desperation, as some have noted, is one definition of comedy; however, in altering the emphasis of the show—Bayles said in a New York Times interview that “Our job changed . . .  from being provocateurs to being healers”—the production, drowning in a tri-state sea of grief and incomprehensibility, only found . . . joy and laughter.  Instead of wearing its politics on ruffled cuffs and sleeves, as so many theatrical ventures are wont to do most of the time, not just in an election year, audiences were allowed to examine the play for itself; its intricate design clearly a writing challenge for any dramatist. The Servant of Two Masters incorporates pratfalls and mismatches, alibis and duels, clowns and proto-vaudeville, and its execution requires classical acting, trained singing, physical theatre, as well as the delivery of one-liners. The actors may be appreciated more now, especially when thinking about the totality of their work—which necessitates operatic emotions and singing, as well as the sound and turn-on-a-dime technique and timing of a Robin Williams. (Others in the ensemble are: Liam Craig, Aidan Eastwood, Andy Grotelueschen, Eugene Ma, Orlando Pabotoy, Sam Urdang, Liz Wisan, and Emily Young.) Their version continues to retain remnants of election eve’s satirization of Republicans, via The Crucible, but they are also “theatre-kid” encyclopedic, regarding lyrics from musical comedy, including Oliver!, The Music Man , and Fiddler on the Roof. The characters’ improbabilities and fallibilities, songs and love-yearning may seem more believable and human after electoral heartbreak—and the multicolored lights that hang around the auditorium, the operetta-like setting (the sets are by Katherine Akiko Day, the costumes by Valerie Therese Bart, and the lighting by Chuan-Ci Can), and the ephemeral nature of the improvisations themselves speak to transitoriness.  On a recording there is a circus trumpet and Italian folk songs, which may remind of a Charlie Chaplin film or childhood holidays.  Having been reborn, from accidents of happenstance, the new-old-new play is proof that Goldoni’s vision of perplexity, if not bewilderment, is ageless–and accurate.  He must be smiling somewhere. Unpredictable life goes on with small reprieves in the company of actors and songs, yet The Servant of Two Masters remains festive, in this jewel of a production.


© 2016 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Press:  Bruce Cohen

Photos: New York Events and Theatre for a New Audience

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