Photo. Barb Gray/Zack Counsil as Brighella and Sean Sullivan as Pantalone.
This rollicking production of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters , under the direction of Andy Massingham is intended to bring us back thirty years when Ottawa’s Odyssey Theatre Company first introduced Commedia dell’arte to the capital. This is in fact the same play but it isn’t the same production and that is the great lesson Massingham has taught us this time : adapting a play does not necessarily mean imitating slavishly the original text, the original style and the original way of performing the event. The question becomes therefore, when is a play no longer the play we thought we were watching?
I came across a similar dilemma this year with Dostoevsky’s The Double performed and directed by Adam Paolozza at the NAC, not because it was badly performed but because it had nothing to do with Dostoevsky’s novel except for some of the situations and some quotes from the original text that always appeared to be taken out of context. The problem was that Paolozza turned Dostoevsky’s disturbing book about paranoia into a clown show but the Russian protagonist is not a clown. He is going out of his mind in a nightmarish adventure . Thus the Toronto Company might have advertised their version of the Double as a play “loosely inspired by The Double”. As it was, their show was a serious misrepresentation of the Russian writer’s work and one could guess that Paolozza, who is interested in corporeal theatre, appeared to be using the text as a crutch for his own brilliant comic stage work that seemed to give little thought to the original narrative or characterization.
Luckily this is not what Massingham did. He is also a great specialist in corporeal theatre which he is teaching in Toronto now but Massingham remained very close to Goldoni’s story and the characters’ evolution.That is the secret of the whole process.
The plots and subplots create a web of complex relationships. Truffaldino, the valet of the title is the servant of Florindo, Béatrice’s lover. He is also in the service of Federigo who is Béatrice’s brother . It all gets complicated when we learn that Clairice (the daughter of Pantalone) qui loves Silvio (the son of Doctor Lombardi) is promised to Federigo and thus she does not want to marry Federigo. However, it seems that Federigo has died. So when “Frederigo arrives, he is actually Beatrice his sister disguised as her own brother. All that adds spice to this wild story that turns this microcosm of venitian society on its head. Misunderdstandings turn into games of identity, into well kept secrets and hysterical goings on.
. Truffaldino who has sworn to respect the identity of his two employers sets up spectacularly chaotic encounters that produce moments of pure farce where the energy is high and the action is lighting-like. All run in different directions at once : the servants as well as the masters and the hotel personnel. Even the chief waiter and hotel manager Brighella (Zack Counsil) succumbs to the magic of his mask and flies away as lightly as a feather.!!
Thus, Massingham respected Goldoni’s parody of venetian life, his playful satire of ruffled class relations, the plight of the poor protagonist Truffaldino who is torn by his sworn duty to two masters . The director even respects the comic origins of Goldonis more refined commedia style that has evolved through the 18th Century. However, instead of imitating all that. Massingham has found contemporary equivalents of those fanciful performance styles and thus he turned Goldoni into someone whose origins were very transparent but whose action now become comedy with much more emotional substance and theatre that can touch all current audiences!! An excellent principle which opened up an endless source of stage creativity where popular Steven Lafond’s music, tango and and even opera-comique came into view. .
Truffaldino (Jesse Buck) frees himself from his circus clown conventions (he did perform with the Cirque du Soleil for a long time, ) to take on multiple forms of comedy tinged with melodrama/ The slim masqued body of the “Zani”is first crushed with despair by his love for the beautiful maid Smeraldina (an excellent dancer by the way) and then suddenly there is our protagonist, transformed into a hysterical servant engaged in a mad danse with Brighella to prevent the two “Masters” from recognizing each other as each is being served by Truffaldino at the same time!! That was the most breathtaking event of the evening. The bottles of wine flew off in all directions, bread was tossed from one plate to the next as the Entrées slid from one tray to the next and the public held its breath, waiting for a collision to ruin everything . But no, the machine was well oiled, the timing was perfectly calculated down to the last second and they all came out of it none the worse for wear.
This new reading of Goldoni with only four masks as is suggested in the Commedia tradition, is well integrated into the global conscience of European and American culture, because English has become the new popular language of that world . Word plays, jokes and all manner of popular expressions that replaced the popular dialects of Venise, Torino and all the regions of Italy were deftly integrated into this theatre. Vanessa Imeson’s beautiful costumes seemed to cross over all the periods as set designer Jerrard Smith’s masks and volumes painted in brilliant colours, were moved by the actors who became stage hands, changing the set into gardens, streets of Venice, and even the canals of Venice with fish jumping!! This world of great fantasy left the vulgarity of the Commedia far behind as comic opera and all sorts of popular musics wafted in the background . There is no doubt that this performance could become a model of the “adaptation” as it incarnates the new world spirit. Don’t miss it..
Servant of Two Masters in Strathcona Park, Not to be missed this summer.