The Servant of two Masters at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival took the stage in the manner of a melting parfait during last week’s mini heat wave.
Miserly fathers called Pantalone, pompous latin-spouting medics, a quartet of lovers – one silly pair and one romantic – the inn-keeper Brighella, the crafty servant Trufaldino and his female counterpart Smeraldina, lots of Lazzis, sequences of bits, takes, asides, and one-two-three gags, and there you have the crazy zany world of Commedia Dell’Arte.
Commedia took its rise from the Italian street theatre of the late 16th and early 17th century, by the time Carlo Goldini was writing in the mid 18th century the form had got a lot more, well, formal. Which is perhaps why in this show, I’m wearing a wig which is first cousin to a dead sheep. Or maybe it’s because whenever they need a rotund character man with dead-sheep-wearing abilities McPhillamy’s name rises first in the rolodex, second time round in garb like this here at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (first time was two years ago in Amadeus). It’s wigs like these that give us the phrase: pull the wool over one’s eyes.
But my first time ever on an out door stage. We are playing at the Greek amphitheatre in the grounds of the Convent of St. Elizabeth. I’m delighted to report that it’s been a hugely pleasant experience. And I can say that in spite of the sun, the heat, the bugs which safely graze, and the aeroplanes which fly over from the nearby flying school about every ten minutes.
How so pleasant in spite of the inconveniences listed above? The theatre sits on the side of a high slope looking across a wide wooded valley. During production week when endless technical rehearsals involving sets and props, lights and sound, intersperse with director’s minutiae regarding staging, text, and timing, I bought an inflatable kiddie pool and filled it with water. Pink faced cast members would appear and dunk head or whole body. That helped in the heat management. The possibility of summer rain adds excitement. Don’t get me wrong I still enjoy the job, but there’s nothing as interesting as free money, as in, in this case getting paid for not acting if the show gets rained off.
This amphitheatre was built in the 1930s. The risers on the three aisle stairways are concrete. And the steps where the audience sits are turf with a concrete lip (not all that comfortable). The semi-circular shape of the auditorium and the rise in it means that if you stand upstage centre, you can whisper and be heard. A happy acoustic rarely found in indoor performing spaces outside the classic Victorian horseshoe shapes that still grace most of London’s West End.
My guy, Il Dottore to give him his traditional Commedia name, is a pompous spouter of ersatz classical language, usually getting the latin wrong and never knowing what he’s talking about. As a sometime dabbler in Sanskrit and a current student of contemporary Chinese, and traveling that road from the total knowledge one had in youth to the growing uncertainty of middle age, I feel I can relate to this archetype. Il Dottore has also stayed too long at fair like Sir Toby Belch, but his faux classical erudition also makes him a close relation to the latin scholar Holofernes in Loves Labour’s Lost.
To say to a company of contemporary actors: ‘right, Commedia Dell’Arte. Begin now, go.’ would be on a par with requiring them to emulate a troupe of Kabuki or Noh players. Folk study for years to reproduce the traditional comic physicalities of these characters, and there is a strong box of traditional gags and tricks some of which require equally long and diligent study. We spent a morning’s rehearsal adjusting our pelvic tilt, turning feet in and out, looking left while walking right, and playing strong simple intentions based on universal human needs: food, money, sex.
Fascinating though this exploration was, we were never going to achieve anything more than a received reproduction of forms that none of us had ever experienced first hand, nor understood from the inside. The first weeks of our production went in the direction of say Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy. But right in the middle of the rehearsal process, the production took a turn toward the style comedies of the Restoration.
One of my early theatre going experiences was when I saw She Stoops to Conquer at the Young Vic Theatre in London. A young Nicky Henson in his virile prime played Marlowe and it was a revelation to me that an actor could be so juicy while spouting formal text. It was one of the performances that made me want to become an actor – another was Tom Courteney in Brandon Thomas’s stand alone late 19th century smash hit, Charley’s Aunt. Congreve’s masterpiece, and say Sheridan’s, The Rivals, and many other plays of the late 18th century live at a higher level of verbal dexterity than Goldoni’s plays – at least as far as scholars can tell. Goldoni wrote in 18th century Venetian dialect and what certain lines mean is a subject of academic treatise.
So our production is a hybrid. But the story works, and if the weather doesn’t deliver wilting heat, and if there are sufficient numbers (audiences need the confidence of other people’s amusement) then it’s a very enjoyable evening under the stars.
Il Dottore is the alter-ego of Pantalone, played brilliantly in our production by Bill Metzo. During rehearsals our double act argument scenes were referred to as: the ‘old men’, I remonstrated with our young director over this title, and we settled on a comprise where these scenes and the actors playing went by the name ‘Living National Treasure’. However, I still wonder in Commedia fashion, whether enough diet and exercise could recapture the vigour of my earlier youth and change the casting to some other archetype… watch this space.