One of my favorite theatrical experiences last season was One Man, Two Guvnors, a British import that rollicked at the good old Music Box Theatre for 159 performances, three at which I was in giddy attendance. So when I heard that Arts Emerson in Boston would be hosting a touring production of The Servant of Two Masters (Carlo Goldoni, 1743), upon which One Man, Two Guvnors is lovingly based, I knew that I had to take it in.
I had never had the occasion to see The Servant of Two Masters before, and it turns out One Man, Two Guvnors is extremely faithful to its source, in terms of the story, the characters, and the raucous, ribald feel of the proceedings. I'm happy to report that I had every bit as much of a grand old time at The Servant of Two Masters as I did at its British progenitor.
Of course, both Servant and Guvnors owe their genesis to the commedia dell'arte tradition, the Italian theatrical form dating back to the 16th century. As in commedia, Servant follows the framework of a story, with certain set comic bits, or lazzi, but much of the action and dialogue is improvised. There are also familiar character types: Pantalone, the miserly merchant; Arlecchino, or Harlequin, the mischievous servant; Columbina, Arlecchino's lusty love interest; Il Dottore, the blustery pedant, etc.
It's easy to see how commedia dell'arte was able to flourish for some many years -- nearly two centuries -- especially if the original commedia were this outlandishly funny. This particular production of Servant was full of fresh characterizations, high-energy staging, and a delicious sense of bawdy, ribald goings on that were the hallmark of commedia. It was sometimes rather difficult to tell which parts were improvised and what was scripted. So much of the show seemed to be so tightly choreographed that it seems rather unlikely it was extemporized.
But there were also numerous topical bits and local references that seemed rather clearly devised for the Boston run of the show. Some of these were a bit forced, like the reference to one character doing his doctoral dissertation on Make Way For Ducklings. Others are spot-on and appear to directly reflect the fact that the production originated at the Yale Repertory Theater. At one point Truffaldino, the Harlequin character, starts to sing a snatch of a song from The Music Man, and Pantalone stops him. "We're not doing a musical here," he says. "This isn't the ART, you know." Zing. At another point, during a bondage-and-discipline reference, one of the characters suggests that their safe word should be "Pippin." Again, zing.
If this production of Servant does have a flaw, it's that the first half goes on about 15 minutes longer than it ideally would. The business becomes a bit repetitive, occasionally bordering on tiresome. Fortunately, the second half gets right down to the business of bringing the complicated plot to a satisfying resolution. Along the way, we're treated to a considerable number of musical interludes, including a gorgeous female trio and a full-blown opera scene.
The director here is Christopher Bayes, who served as movement director for the Broadway production of The 39 Steps. Bayes and his cast create a world that is fresh, vibrant, and lovingly stylized. Standouts among the cast include Allen Gilmore in the Pantalone role, who has a superb sense of heightened physicality and crack comic timing.
Of course, this production really belongs to Steven Epp in the central role of Truffaldino, the Harlequin character who sets the show in comic motion by attempting to double his salary by serving the two titular masters. Epp is a comic marvel and a very appealing and sympathetic presence on stage. The fine performances from both of these gentlemen are even more remarkable considering both Pantalone and Arlecchino traditionally perform in masks. That both men were able to exude such a strong sense of character, when most of their faces are covered, is a testament to the talent and training of both.
The Servant to Two Masters plays at Boston's Paramount Theater through next Sunday, February 10th. If you're in Boston and are looking for a rollicking good time at the theater, by all means make haste to the theater district and see some masters of the comic, the titular, and the titillating sort.
Two final notes. This was my first time attending a show in Boston's recently restored Paramount Theater. I have to say I'm glad that we have this former vaudeville theater up and running again, but the theater looks better in pictures online than it does in person. I mean, there are nice touches in the auditorium, but you can really see the economies in the construction, including the rather twee and flat wall frescoes.
Also, you may recall that this production, while it was playing the Guthrie Theater, offered patrons the chance to sit in "Tweet Seats," in which they were encouraged to use their smart phones to their hearts' content. I'm exceedingly glad that Arts Emerson did not replicate this policy, and resolutely refuse to patronize any theater that does. Theater is a chance to become fully immersed in another world. There's quite enough in the theater these days to take me out of the moment: people chatting constantly with their neighbors, rustling through bags looking for the snacks they brought, chewing their gum with their mouths wide open, checking the scores for the big game on their phones, etc. I don't care if the Tweeters are in a different section. I'm against any such policy on principle. Turn off your goddamn phones and watch the goddamn show.
Here endeth the diatribe.