It was in the opening moments of The Servant of Two Masters, as one of the performers stood in front of the curtain to introduce the show, that I realized this wasn’t your standard 18th century classical Italian comedy.
I think it was the fact that she was wearing sneakers that gave it away.
Carlo Goldoni may have written The Servant of Two Masters in 1746, but writer/director Aaron Cromie’s new adaptation gives it a modern sheen while staying true to the show’s roots. That means that the production uses the traditional masks and performance style of commedia dell’arte, the vintage theatrical style that was immensely popular in Europe for centuries. (Cromie designed the masks, which obscure about half of the actors’ faces – though they’re only worn by the comic characters, not the romantic leads.)
But Cromie adds a lot of contemporary verbal wit to the Goldoni’s story. So you’ll see actors perform scenes in rhyming verse, then give each other high fives when they make a particularly sharp rhyme. You’ll hear references to Elvis, Prince, and Hamilton that Goldoni never dreamed of. And you’ll hear puns galore – like when the lead character tells a servant to fetch “that fakakta bread of yours.”
“Focaccia,” she replies.
“That’s what I said,” he counters.
Not every one of Cromie’s jokes lands; there are several corny running gags that don’t work the first time around and don’t get funnier by repetition. But even the less successful moments add to the show’s contagious, ‘anything-for-a-laugh’spirit. And Cromie’s lightning-fast direction adds to the merriment, with actors darting around the stage speedily in the slapstick tradition.
And speaking of slapstick, you’ll see an actual slapstick – a wooden device that makes a slapping noise – deployed during a fight scene to give the impression that the actors are actually hitting each other. It’s an instrument that was first used in productions of, you guessed it, commedia dell’arte plays.
Goldoni’s plot is appropriately ridiculous – it’s all about a vain and buffoonish servant who takes two impossible jobs because, well, he can. He ends up complicating the lives of his two masters; one of whom is a woman disguised as a man, while the other is that woman’s lover, who fails to recognize her. And both of those masters end up complicating the lives of a dimwitted engaged couple and their contentious fathers.
Got all that? Well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is seeing this cast nimbly deal with language, props, and each other. It’s a joy seeing Jared Reed, as the title character, serve meals to each of this two masters, who sit at separate tables and manage not to notice each other. Reed juggles plates, cutlery and pieces of food with aplomb, somehow keeping everything straight and managing to snag a lot of the food for himself.
Every performer gets moments in the spotlight with funny, distinct bits of comic business. Madalyn St. John is a petulant bride-to-be who whines when she doesn’t get her way – and when that doesn’t work, she drops to the floor and rolls into the other actors.
Mark Swift is her foppish, foolish fiancé, who engages in a swordfight even though he barely know how to hold a sword. Brock D. Vickers is blissfully over the top as Swift’s preening, posturing rival, artfully wiping sweat from his torso for maximum effect. And Sarah Knittel is the earthy maid who can’t understand why Reed’s servant isn’t paying attention to her: “I’m the full package / I mean, look at this rackage!”
Shaun Yates, who plays several supporting roles, also designed the versatile set, a set of flats that leaves room for multiple separate entrances. And Kayla Speedy’s costumes – in period style, but with modern flourishes (like those sneakers) – have a drollness all their own.
It takes a lot of effort to make comedy that feels this effortless. Hedgerow’s The Servant of Two Masters gives an antique theatrical style just enough of an update to make it feel lively and timeless.
Running Time: Two hours, including a 10-minute intermission.
‘Riffing, Replacing, and Reworking Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters” at the Hedgerow Theatre: An Interview with Director Aaron Cromie: Part 1 by Henrik Eger.
‘Pushing the Envelope to Attract Contemporary Audiences: Goldoni at the Hedgerow Theatre: Part 2 of An Interview with Director Aaron Cromie by Henrik Eger.