A roasted chicken flying in the air, butterflies in a sparkling blue sky, actors running on stage with swords drawn — the latest play at the Yale Repertory Theatre is a light 18th-century comedy that serves up these sundry offerings in a spectacle complete with masks, ruffs and buckles.
“The Servant of Two Masters,” which opened March 12, tells the story of a servant who decides to serve two masters so that he can get fed twice. The play, directed by School of Drama associate professor of acting Christopher Bayes, belongs to the commedia dell’arte tradition — an Italian Renaissance genre of comedy that relies on exaggeration and physicality, which are heightened in the Rep production through music by three onstage musicians. Though the play was adapted from a 16th-century original by Carlo Goldoni, it has been modernized to make the experience more entertaining for contemporary audiences, Bayes said.
“The history of commedia is one in which there has always been a certain amount of improvising,” Bayes said. “Groups would use local jokes to entertain the audience. People like to see it’s a living form.”
Playwright Constance Congdon, who adapted the play from an English translation of Goldoni’s Italian original, added that she “took a lot of liberty” with the original script.
The antics of the gluttonous servant Truffaldino — ranging from the swapping of personal letters to the destruction of important legal documents — complicate a plot already fraught with intrigue and deceit. A flurry of comical misunderstanding, with mistaken identities and characters rising from the dead, adds hilarity to the story of four lover trying to reunite. Chaos ensues against the idyllic backdrop of a sunny day in Venice.
“It’s a free fall — a playground for everyone,” Bayes said. He added that comedy brings a different tone to the Yale Rep season, which has featured heavier and more dramatic works such as Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” and Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion” in the past months.
As Truffaldino runs around the stage catching a flying roast chicken and bread pudding on platters, while one of the heroines discards her skirt in a fit of anger, the physicality on stage is hard to miss.
But in addition to physicality, “The Servant of Two Masters” has strong dialogue that makes the comedic effect more palpable, while adding a hint of darkness to the play, said actor Steven Epp, who plays Truffaldino.
“I think you always have to look for the other side of [the comedy]” Epp said. “There is always an underbelly to it. Servants are at the mercy of higher powers in the society. Truffaldino fears beating if something goes wrong. It contains an inherent feeling of violence in it.”
Mellifluous music, twinkling lighting effects, comical masks and period costumes contribute to the blithe tone of the play.
“The set and the lights work together to tell a story, which becomes more than just a story and opens up the history of commedia to the audience,” Congdon said, adding that all the music pieces except one were originally composed for this performance.
“It was epic,” one audience member, Syed Haider Shahbaz ’13, said. “I have not laughed that hard since I have come to Yale.”
“The Servant of Two Masters” will run through April 3.