So you've seen -- oh, who am I kidding? So you've read the Sparknotes for a Shakespearian comedy, right? There's always someone with an Italian-sounding name dressing up like someone with an equally Italian-sounding name (though usually a member of the opposite sex); there's a love triangle, there's a misunderstanding and there's a boatload of incredibly dirty jokes that people in the 21st century simply don't get. It's often very much like an episode of "Three's Company."
Well, as it turns out, Shakespeare wasn't the only one to write comedies in this fashion. Venetian playwright Carlo Goldini wrote "A Servant of Two Masters" in the 18th century, and while it follows much of the same formulae Shakespeare used, his work certainly stands on its own as a classic.
The Tulsa Community College Theatre Department presents "Servant," closing its run this weekend.
Telling the story of Truffaldino, servant of Beatrice, "A Servant of Two Masters" will remind viewers of "Some Like It Hot," "Where's Charley?" and even "Bosom Buddies." There are some great slapstick moments in the show.
"It is a farce, and the necessary elememts are mistaken identities and things like that," said director and TCC's coordinator of theater, Mark Walters.
An example of commedia del arte, the show was one of the first pieces of that art form that was actually written down, he said.
"It's one of the few commedia del arte shows that exists, because commedia del arte was primarily improv. You would have actors who were good at these different stock characters, and they didn't have a script to rehearse, but just a premise," Walters said.
That mindset has carried over into TCC's production, as well, as Walters has given his actors some latitude in what they say.
"It gives kids an opportunity to work on a classical show, but also bring some of their personalities to the show. I told them, 'If you want to ad lib or improvise, then you may do that,'" he said. "That allows them to be creative in their own right. That's not something actors get to do very much."
With that in mind, each performance will be a little bit different, as would have been the case for audiences seeing a commedia del arte show in the thrilling days of yesteryear, Walters said, again referring to the rarity of actual scripted lines in this form of theater.
"Each show was similar, but still there was a lot of interplay with the audiences and a lot of improv. So it's rare to have a commedia del arte show that's written down," he said.
Speaking to Walters about the show elicits a history lesson of sorts, as he talks about the origins of professional theater, the years-long prohibition of the use of female actors, and even etymologies of words like "slapstick" and "zany," and he does all this while talking about why he chose this particular show --not exactly the best-known piece of theater ever.
"We wanted to do a classical show for the students, trying to get a rotation going where we do a Shakespeare play, a Greek drama, things like that," he said. "I wanted a big cast, and when we decided to commedia del arte, this is probably the most famous one of those shows. I've always liked this show. I think it's a lot of fun," he said, and again pointed to the improvisation with which he's allowing his cast to experiment.
Ask Walters about the relevance of this show, with its women dressing as men, dowry money, people dying in duels over honor and the like -- little of which goes on today -- and he's got several ready answers.
"We still do farce comedies today. While [author] Goldoni didn't invent it, he certainly left us with a great piece of this art form. It's almost like Whose Line Is It Anyway? meets classical theater," he said. And if that doesn't make you want to see this show, I don't know what will.
"There are elements of improv, elements of sitcom, elements of Vaudeville. Look at the Marx brothers or the Three Stooges; these are all examples of slapstick, classic Vaudeville comedies," he said, noting that commedia del arte is where these sorts of examples come from.
Conflicting Hunger. Mark Walters directs TCC's production of Carlo Goldini's A Servant of Two Masters.
"Another relevant thing is that this did create the actress. I think that's very relevant," Walters said. "Commedia del arte is the first kind of theater where women were allowed to be onstage, and it's also the first thing that allowed for professional actors -- people making a living acting. So I think this show is very relevant. We have professional theater and we have actresses because of commedia del arte.
Perhaps the most famous scene from "Servant" is one in which Truffaldino, serving two masters as the title suggests, attempts to serve dinner to both while trying not to be found out. It's a funny scene, and anyone who knows commedia del arte knows this particular part of the show.
And while Walters loves the scene, he loves the rest of the show, as well.
"It's hard to say what's my favorite part of the show. Usually, the two masters that are being served the dinner are offstage. But I've put them onstage. We have a little partition that rolls out and separates the two tables, so we see them being served dinner, but they don't see each other. In that way, we've done something a little different there," he said.
"That's one of my favorite scenes, but it was also a really hard scene to do. There's just so much going on," Walters said.
"A Servant of Two Masters" is presented in the Studio Theater at the VanTrease PACE this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm, with a final Sunday matinee performance at 2pm. Tickets are $7.50-$10. For information, call 918-595-7777.
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