Written by Carlo Goldoni
Adapted by Constance Congdon
Further adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes
From a Translation by Christina Sibul
Directed by Christopher Bayes
Review by Craig Idlebrook
In the 18th century, playwrights had to walk a fine line if they were going to earn their bread, as their plays had to appeal simultaneously to both the washed and unwashed. A play had to allow both illiterate farmers and literate aristocracy to connect with the story and side with the protagonists. A playwright needed to find a common denominator in a story and then layer it with tidbits that resonated with segments of the audience.
Plot-wise, playwright Carlo Goldoni stuck with what works in his bawdy comedy The Servant of Two Masters, playing now at the Paramount Theater. You could come into the middle of this yarn and pick up the plot within thirty seconds. The story includes a cross-dressing woman who poses as her dead brother to reunite with her love in an unfamiliar town, a mischievous servant who hires himself out to two bosses and mixes them up, a father who attempts to marry his daughter off to an suitable suitor, etc. etc. Sound familiar? It’s like Goldoni threw all of Shakespeare’s comedies into a blender; of course, the Bard wasn’t exactly breaking ground, either. But this production, undertaken by the Yale Repertory Theatre and presented by ArtsEmerson, succeeds because Goldoni, and his modern-day directorial companion Christopher Bayes, trust the creative spirit of a good cast to infuse a tired story with new energy. Both the original script and its modern adaptions are like a detailed outline for the play, an outline that leaves space for improvised action and ad-libbed asides; thus an 18th century servant breaks from the script to joke with the audience about the Green Line’s shortcomings and the continuing playoff woes of the New England Patriots. Much of the play is tightly and melodramatically choreographed, down to synchronizing movements for rim-shot musical interjections, but there are moments when neither the performers nor the audience know what will happen next.
With a lesser production, this would create all kinds of awkward dead space, but Bayes has honed his cast to act and react with breakneck speed, and the actors remain just one-half step ahead of the action. The effect is something akin to watching a tightrope walker attempt something new, except without that pesky threat of impending death. The audience never knows what is planned and what is unplanned, and that leaves a lot of room for laughs.
This show isn’t always easy theater for the audience. Bayes’ cast commits to a level of histrionics usually found in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and some of the actors are better able to communicate in this rapid-fire pacing than others. Occasionally, you have to accept the broad strokes of a scene rather than individual lines of dialogue, but that is a small price to pay for a truly live-wire theatrical experience.