Lifeline Theatre

When Carlo Goldoni wrote Servant of Two Masters in the mid-18th century, he was criticized in terms similar to those employed by foes of movie “colorization.” Goldoni had taken the Italian commedia dell’arte style, with its stock characters and stylized repertoire of physical and verbal gags, and used it as the basis for a written play. Purists saw this as a direct affront to the basic cornerstone of the style: improvisation. In true commedia dell’arte, the actors used a very sketchy plot scenario as the basis for their raucous, athletic, often vulgar antics. When he wrote Servant of Two Masters as a vehicle for the great clown Sacchi, Goldoni was seen as an unnecessary and ill-advised “reformer.”

Now, more than 200 years later, we are grateful to Goldoni for having preserved on paper a quintessential example of an ephemeral style. And in this season of theatrical openings in which results have fallen so short of expectations–in which so many productions have sunk under the weight of their own intended importance–we can say: thanks to Lifeline Theatre for a show full of exuberant fun and delightful stylishness.

Lifeline’s Servant–conceived, directed, and largely designed by, commedia specialist John Szostek–has its flaws, but for the most part it has the same high-energy appeal found in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Like Roger’s home, Toontown, the Venice of Servant is a make-believe, anything-goes place. Waiters at an inn careen about the dining room tossing plates at each other, as the pasta flies off the dishes and back onto them again. A naughty servant, being berated by his boss, backs up until he’s bent over backward at an impossible angle, then springs right back up again the moment the storm has passed. Like the improbably curvaceous but still cartoonish Jessica in the Roger Rabbit movie, the lecherous old fool Pantalone romps around with an overstuffed codpiece, at once absurd and erotic, while the much-chased-after maidservant Smeraldina telegraphs her lustiness with a series of hip bumps that transform real-life sexuality into daffy exaggeration. Indeed, exaggeration is the keynote of commedia, a comic style based on the excesses–physical, verbal, and emotional–of human behavior.

Goldoni’s Servant takes its characters and plot straight from the commedia source. The story is a case study in conflict along class, sexual, and generational lines: Truffaldino, the Harlequinesque title character, a crafty clown who consoles his always-hungry belly as if it were a forlorn lover, decides to earn more meal money by taking employment as the valet to two different men. One of these men, as it happens, is really a woman, Beatrice, disguised so she can pursue the wandering Florindo–who, also as it, happens, is the other man for whom Truffaldino is working. A second plot line involves the efforts of the foolish patriarchs Pantalone and Dr. Lombardi to wed Pantalone’s daughter to Lombardi’s son–a classically mismatched pair of fatuous lovers, she gawky and languorous, he short and tempestuous. To this fairly slim narrative thread Goldoni ties two hours’ worth of slapstick silliness: a ludicrous wrestling match between the two old fogies, a rowdy beating for the rascally Truffaldino by both of his employers, and parallel courtships that mock the tradition of romantic love even as they uphold it (when Truffaldino plucks a flower for his beloved Smeraldina, he can’t resist eating it before she can take it from his hand).

To the comic riches already strewn promiscuously through Goldoni’s script, the Lifeline troupe has added another narrative layer: the play is ostensibly being performed as a touring show by two feuding families, the Bozzas and the Broccolinis. This is a clever way to acquaint modern audiences with two major aspects of authentic commedia: it was designed to tour (its inherent rowdiness is due largely to the fact that it was presented out of doors, in the square of whatever town a troupe happened to come to), and it was largely a family tradition, with sons and daughters inheriting signature roles from their actor parents. (Commedia was also unusual in allowing women onstage in a time when female roles were generally played by boys.) As Servant of Two Masters progresses, the actors not involved in a scene sit offstage, in plain sight, playing percussion and cheering on their respective families (when the lovers Beatrice and Florindo deliver their overdone romantic monologues, the other actors hold up scorecards to grade them)–and eventually taking sides in a huge onstage battle.

These and other efforts to update the play–jokes about Velcro, a rock and roll love song–are the show’s weakest spots: the collegiate earnestness of the actors in their own material simply falls far short of the original script’s anarchic zaniness. (The very word “zany” comes from zanni, the term used to describe Truffaldino and the other clown characters.) Thanks largely to Szostek’s well-informed direction and design-the leather masks used to define the different characters are a marvel, and Laura Cunningham’s character-coordinated costumes are lovely, at once elegant and raffish–Lifeline’s Servant of Two Masters is at its best when it is most authentic. The actors are all in good physical, vocal, and mental shape for this demanding, earthy but lighthearted brand of humor; Gary Glasgow as Pantalone, Steve Totland as Truffaldino, Meryl Friedman as Smeraldina, and James Sie as a fey Pulcinella are especially delightful. This is Renaissance-era commedia as a vital, living form, not a museum relic–freewheeling, messy, frantic, and truly ensemble based.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.