The Servant of Two Masters to delight Calgary audiences

By Alicia Ward

Our world has changed since the 18th century, yet our sense of humour remains the same. The slapstick comedy we see in modern sitcoms has a strong presence throughout history in a theatre form known as Commedia dell’Arte. This month, the style is coming to the EPCOR Centre’s Motel in the complex comedy The Servant of Two Masters.

Originating in Italy, Commedia dell’Arte is a comedic form of theatre traditionally based on stock characters, physical comedy and improvisation. Each stock character serves as an exaggerated reflection of reality, such as Pantalone (an old rich man) or the Zanni (the servants). The actors also wear outlandish masks that are specific to their characters.

Playwright Carlo Goldoni used scripted dialogue instead of improvisation, which captured the attention of Calgary director Mike Griffin.

Griffin travelled to Italy to study Commedia dell’Arte and returned to the U of C to develop his MFA thesis around the theatre form. Last year, Griffin staged Goldoni’s The Liar as part of the drama department’s mainstage season.

Still fascinated with Commedia dell’Arte and Goldoni’s works, Griffin is now producing and directing The Servant of Two Masters with Calgary’s Beyond the Brink Productions.

“I love the physical characterization of the characters [in Commedia dell’Arte]. I love the playfulness, I love the slapstick, I love how it’s fun,” explains Griffin.

“It’s such a different approach . . . [compared to] a realism play or a Shakespeare play or something like that.”

Written in 1745, The Servant of Two Masters is one of Goldoni’s first and most well-known plays. “It’s fun, it’s physical, it’s goofy, it’s wacky, it’s bizarre, it’s chaotic,” enthuses Griffin.

The Servants of Two Masters is a complex play filled with deception, chaos and the search for a lost love. A servant finds himself waiting on ‘two masters’ — lovers unaware that they are in the same city. As the servant tries to conceal his double allegiance there is an impersonation of a dead fellow, fleeing because of a murder and the devastated speeches of a broken heart.

“It’s not a full, 100 per cent traditional Commedia play because it’s scripted,” Griffin notes. “I tried to keep in with the heart of Goldoni . . . as he wrote this play. We took the heart of the play, all the main important elements of the play, and then we improvised [with] them.”

This unique adaptation of Goldoni’s work was a team effort. “It’s a really interesting process because [the play is] really from the ensemble,” stresses Griffin. The cast and crew includes emerging artists and U of C drama alumni.

Although centuries old, Griffin is convinced that audiences will still be entertained by Commedia dell’Arte’s slapstick humour.

“It’s not a play that’s going to leave you thinking about these really deep philosophical questions for the rest of the week, but . . . this is a play that you can come to and sit back and enjoy.”

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