By James Foritano
Boston, MA- People like to laugh, and they like to laugh especially at other people and their foibles. I heard waves of laughter as I sat watching the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Servant of Two Masters,” a presentation of ArtsEmerson now at The Paramount Theater through February 10.
Commedia dell’ arte is a tradition which arose, according to many sources, in Italy sometime in the fifteen hundreds with small troupes of actors who would travel from village to village, region to region, striving to attract the locals to the main square and a makeshift stage where they could enjoy boisterous and broad repartee, outrageous costumes, and related or unrelated acrobatics.
Napoleon, in his revolutionary sweep through Europe, banned commedia dell’ arte in the regions of Italy he occupied. And one can see why: Napoleon himself, with his short, stout person and super-dignified pose: right hand inserted between the middle buttons of his straining vest, would have been a ripe target.
The church also inveighed against the broad satire and what they saw as the loose morals of commedia dell arte. One can just imagine churchmen peering out the windows of the local church to hear and see, on a makeshift stage below, dancing, music and boisterously raised voices attracting more locals than a solemn Sunday sermon.
One can imagine, also, that even the most intrepid of these churchmen would hold themselves back from peering too far out the window for fear of having their own dress and manners mocked by an alert actor. And successful players of this genre of drama were nothing if not alert to the very latest and/or very oldest topics of satire.
The sanctimony of a churchman waddling through town with a fat purse swinging at his side, the braggadocio of an unemployed soldier filling the time between skirmishes with hot air, the greed of an old man calculating the worth of everything — even love. And, of course, the young and restless, calculating nothing but the worth of their next love affair — moaning their losses, screaming their pleasures as they win and lose in the battle of the sexes.
All these characters were on stage, some more some less, as commedia del arte rolls rambunctiously into the 21st century on the Paramount Stage. The heart of this production was the antics of Truffaldino, a servant of two masters played by Steven Epp.
Epp is magnificently, even monstrously, talented in the physical comedy that distinguishes this genre from most any other. He wears his body, dressed in the patchwork of the stock character Harlequin the clown, like a suit that he can button as up-tightly or as louchly as his character suggests.
He projects his moods, stratagems, caprices so powerfully to the furthest seat of the house, that you just have to root for him, not only for his strictly under-dog status in this scheming crowd of high-rollers, but for the irresistible clarity with which he projects his every agony and ecstasy.
Take my wife. Excuse me! Take the scene in which Truffaldino is standing between the ‘two masters’ he has hoodwinked in every possible way, his villainy exposed to daylight, expecting retribution from one sharp sword or another at any moment and…he is forgiven!
A brief, poignant moment of ecstasy beams from his mightily relieved person, then…he embarrasses himself with another form of ‘relief’, turns about and weaves off-stage, thighs tightly, but not too tightly, pressed together in one of the too-many-to-count forms of locomotion through which Truffaldino has walked through, about and around every contingency cleanly – more or less.
The most sophisticated wit — and, believe me, there was little of it last night — could not hope to evoke the squirmy sense of wetness, of odor, which crept through the house of onlookers, suddenly become participants in a signal moment of commedia dell’ arte.
I, myself, lean towards more dignified existential as opposed to excremental angst in my play going, but I was not untouched.
Indeed, it was not only the virtuosic Steven Epp who pummeled and tweaked my more delicate sensibilities – better left at the door – but the heroines, who paraded, bosoms bared and thrust forward, through three hot, hot, hot love matches; the gallant suitors, who, though rarely unsheathing the full magnificence of their swords in public, always held them semi-erect; the greed and hypocrisy of … but you get the idea — or will.
Does commedia dell’ arte have a heart (or a mind) you might wonder in your more critical moments? Then, as your critical faculties are goosed by yet another sight-gag, a pun so vivid you can taste it, a satirical reference to a current lunacy so pointed you snort deliciously, you adjourn your ‘higher’ court to enjoy the bowels of humor chugging through every exchange in this play, and yourself, like peristalsis.
And speaking of ‘higher faculties,’ do bring a flypaper mind, if you must bring anything heavy, to “The Servant of Two Masters” since catching every topical reference and every satire-tipped witticism can feel like an extreme sport if your comprehension is not armed and up-to-date.
Then again, like the younger kid who finds himself surrounded by older sensibilities, just laugh along with the crowd until you completely forget your puzzlement. Everyone, both off stage and on-stage, and through the ages, does it.
(ArtsEmerson’s presentation of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters continues through February 10 at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, Mass. For tickets, call (617) 824-8400.)