The Servant of Two Masters – What does theatre preserve and what does it shake off? (Theatre Review)
The Servant of Two Masters
Fools in Progress and Emu Productions
King Street Theatre March 14 – March 25
For those of us who see a lot of theatre, we have to admit that all theatrical events are dense with meaning (this can be traumatic or joyful) but they do not deliver this meaning all at once or only once. It is delivered over a long period and in a process that seems incessant. That is to say, theatre cannot be reduced to the first interpretation given to them in the heat of the (critical) moment precisely because they contain an excess – and not a deficit – of meaning. Is there any form of theatre that follows this premise more than commedia dell’arte and the exquisite use of its leather masks? For theatre company Fools In Progress, commedia dell’arte is a theatrical tradition to be remembered, celebrated and revived for just this purpose.
It is no small thing to see a face come more alive under the cover of a mask. It forces a confrontation with the self. Fools in Progress perform with admirable mastery, keeping a tradition alive that is self-evidently worth preserving. The Servant of two Masters takes its name from Matthew 6:24, its meaning that you cannot serve both God and money. And yet artfully, Truffaldino the jester/harlequin/fool outwits those around him and serves each of his masters beyond their expectations. Carlo Goldini does not quite stand on the mountain top and shake his fist at God, but he does giggle at him as he carefully proves him wrong. However, after Nietzsche declared god dead, these battles have seemed outdated; until we move into a post-patriarchal history, where the most powerful white man in the world appears to us as a buffoon as he struggles to claim control of the narrative. The white male god of our history is well and truly dead, and the question that now raises its head, is that of memory and forgetting. What do we preserve from an outdated past and what do we keep? Goldini, himself a dead white male, is presented here in a plea for remembrance.
The premise behind The Servant of Two Masters transforms itself in this quietly brilliant production to one of forgotten histories and their struggle for contemporary importance. Director Maria de Marco presents a deconstructed form of The Servant of Two Masters, mostly by drawing attention to the strengths of the low-budget production and avoiding competition with large glamorous productions of the past. Dramatic attention is stressed on the use of masks, and the commedia improvviso aspects of each performance. The night I attended, a costume fail was seamlessly drawn into the sketch, turning the moment into one of the best comic performances I’ve seen in recent years. Maria de Marco encourages the cast to respond with potency to the audience, and a collaborative dance between the two becomes one of the central pivots around which the performance cycles. This results in a production of enduring meaning. An impact on memory; a plea the production clearly makes.
We are left with the central question then, not of why do we forget, but rather why do we remember? The Servant of Two Masters makes its case for memory; the mask work alone is something to behold and reveals a lot about the face in the mirror and the face of the other. Yet, so much beauty has been lost through time, why is Goldini worth preserving? Is it indeed Goldini we are preserving? Fools in Progress might suggest otherwise and make a claim to perform any contemporary writer standing on the shoulders of this performance art. As Maria de Marco quietly disassembles Carlo Goldoni in her efforts to preserve him, Fools in Progress preserve him in their efforts to deconstruct him. Surely this is a beautiful example of the masks at work in the collaborative creative experience. So many hours of thought and contemplation bubble behind this production of The Servant of two Masters, it is impossible to miss the enormities despite the unassuming nature of the production. All this is encapsulated in Markus Weber and Maria de Marco’s set which mirrors the ephemeral image of the harlequin, while embodying all the profundity the jester inspires in theatrical history.
One cannot speak about this production of without mentioning a few of the remarkable performances. While there are many great moments, Ben-Jamin Newham’s Truffaldino is a stand out, and worth the price of the ticket alone. Clearly a master of his style, it’s a joy to behold the endless energy and stylistic rhythms that go into this performance. Likewise, the period accuracy of Bianca Bonino is revelatory and engagingly funny. Both are the mask coaches for the cast, and they have done their job well. All the cast of The Servant of Two Masters have a strong command over their roles, and I can well imagine this is a production that will be better toward the end of its run as the cast form their own platform of short term memories upon which to perform their individual comic pieces.
All in all, The Servant of Two Masters is a well-executed, joyful experience in remembering and forgetting what theatre used to be. However, just as what we choose to remember is as important as what we choose to forget, those choices form the platform for the actions in the present and the future we project. A good look at this production will help us see those choices at broader and more accessible perspective than we know.