The fall arts scene in Seattle is now off and running. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra was first out of the gate. Seattle Repertory Theatre, known locally as ‘The Rep’ is now running its first production of the season, hot on the heels of ACT.
ACT is short for ‘A Contemporary Theater’ so, of course, it falls on The Rep to reach back 250 years to produce ‘The Servant of Two Masters’ by Carlo Goldoni, and the Tony-winning company proved itself up to the assignment.
Goldoni is a very important figure in Italian theatrical history; he came of age in the waning years of commedia dell’arte in Europe. Goldoni viewed the form as irrelevant, stale, and past its prime. He wanted to bring something more relevant, but just as entertaining, to popular theater. For entertainment, he kept the slapstick bufoonery and physical comedy of the commedia, but rather than rely on the stock characters and wild improvisation, he wrote simple, basic plots. Upon these slender hangers he allowed his performers to improvise, overact, and slapstick their way through the storyline.
These stories proved hugely popular and so Goldoni’s plotted stories started the momentum which moved Italy out of the Renaissance and down the road to the realism of contemporary theater.
Yet the conventions of commedia dell’arte are still with us; the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny and Mel Brooks pay homage to its farcicial energy, and I thought about Brooks’ Blazing Saddles as Handsome Hunk and I laughed ourselves silly on Sunday night, September 29.
At first, the production required some adjustment. To an audience more used to realism, the exaggerations, overwrought antics, and masks and costumes seemed overdone, at least to me. I reminded myself this show is an historic piece, and THIS WAS HOW IT WAS DONE, DAMNIT! GET USED TO IT!
I did. By the time intermission arrived, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. (It arrived just in time, too; the action was so fast paced I needed some relief, to catch my breath from laughing so much). Of course, praise goes to the cast, all 11 of them. Although Steven Epp, as Truffaldino, the servant of the title, was the lead, this really was an ensemble play. Everyone raced, bounced, over-emoted and over-acted, and their physical comedy bits were deft and well-timed, and all were up to the task. Of special note, besides Epp, was a bit by Allan Gilmore, as Pantalino, who found himself in an, er, awkward position after channelling Beyonce (just see it; don’t ask).
The rest of the talented cast included Scott Ward Abernethy; Julie Briskman; Liam Craig; Trick Dannecker; Allen Galli; Eugene Ma; Jesse J. Perez; Adina Verson; and Liz Wilson. Physical comedy is not easy, but they made the experience look easy and fun. Two musicians, Carolyn Boulay and Aaron Halvah did their best to keep up. Even more entertaining when they’d miss a cue (or did they really?).
All this was ably executed by director Christopher Bayes, and was certainly well-qualified for this, being the Head of Physical Acting/Professor of Yale School of Drama,. His extensive resume also includes teaching workshops for Cirque du Soleil.
The physical direction also required mental dexterity as well; part of the appeal of commedia has been its improvisational nature, making up bits and dialogue on the fly, and actors have to be able to keep up . Topical references flew fast and furious here. Besides Beyonce, Microsoft got its due, as well as Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, and the Wilson sisters of Heart. The most hilarious one, for me, was the time when Truffaldino recovered consciousness, sat up and looked around and said, “Is the tunnel done yet?”
All the chaos and confusion was settled by the end of the show, which ended in a climax very reminiscent of Blazing Saddles. That’s when I started thinking about all the similarities: the topical references, the physical gags and word play which Brooks so gleefully dumps into his stories. There was also a bit between two characters reminiscent of the classic crack-ups between Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show.
Humor is universal, and Goldoni has helped us to identify with the human foibles in all of us. He’s also given us a rollicking fun time and the Rep paid its respects to by being seriously faithful to his onstage chaos and shenanigans. We owe him a great debt.
Seeing this great show at the Rep (now playing through October 20) is not a bad way to repay that debt either. Or re-see it. Due to the nature of the beast, there will be something new to split your sides every night.