Unlike Aristotelian tragedy, the commedia world is a world where character flaws aren’t tragic, where no one falls from a great height. Unless, of course, it’s from a ladder that is falling, too. This “fall” is a lazzo, a comic bit that is rehearsed extensively, until the performers can do it expertly. Lazzi, which form an essential vocabulary of the commedia, are always virtuosic. But more importantly, they are also dangerous. Just as a high-flying act in a circus brings an audience a particular thrill, that thrill that can only happen when events start to veer out of control.
I experienced this thrill countless times when Christopher Bayes asked me if he could work with my adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters at Yale Repertory Theatre. Chris had played Brighella in the first production of “my” Servant at Hartford Stage, years ago, and now he wanted to stage the play as a true improvised commedia, with the very brilliant and rude genius of Steven Epp as Truffaldino, that basis and brother of so many great clowns.
As each lazzo was being rehearsed, I found myself gasping and laughing, a reaction I still have when I see it in performance. For example, Truffaldino has some exit lines that are “up for grabs” and, in rehearsal, Steve would frequently go, even for us, over the line. “Okay. Laughed a lot. But not for the performance,” I heard Chris shout, in a friendly, yet firm, way. “Oh,” you may be saying, “don’t cut that.” Well, you may hear it in one of the performances.
There are still nights, when the audience and the actors are perfectly aligned, as stars can be, where anything can happen. One moment of “alignment” in the play is the extended improvisation around the planning of the wedding dinner at Brighella’s Inn. Pantalone referred to Beatrice contemptuously, with a term that rhymes with “Aer Lingus.” I nearly peed my pants with laughter—what a commedia moment—the animal functions are never to be ignored. “Hmmmmm,” said Chris. We all nodded at each other (as if I had anything to do with it), yes, we had gone over the line. In the last performance of Servant at Yale Rep, Pantalone looked at me and said the line. I have never heard an audience emit such a sound: “WHOAA!!” It was a glorious moment, and one that can’t be replicated. Or maybe it can—what will the troupe say tonight?
Goldoni’s comedy is modern, written in the Venetian dialect and based on the model of Molière. His plays are his version of what we might today call sitcoms. But he relied on scenarios drawn from the commedia, an ancient form grown out of Roman comedy. Servant was itself a scenario that Goldoni wrote for the great Venetian commedia actor, Antonio Sacchi. After a year of development “on the road,” in front of hundreds of audiences, Goldoni began to shape it into the play that you see today. Theatre is a collaborative art form. It is a collaboration between writers, actors and audiences. We all made it and we continue to, through every performance and every age. When you see this play, you will hear “jokes” that are completely of your time, and yet they come from a structure that is thousands of years old.
And, for those who might think that I added the profound indictment of male attitudes toward female sexual behavior, delivered by Smeraldina at the close of the play: that passage is Goldoni, unchanged for 400 years.