By Will Broaddus
---- — The Mainstage Theatre at Salem State, which will shut its doors in June, opened 30 years ago to the sound of laughter.
With performances this weekend and next of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters,” it’s going to close that way, as well.
“When I got here in 1976, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was already scheduled as the first show,” said David George, professor of theater at Salem State. “We want to go out with a big laugh and a lot of fun.”
Goldoni, whose career spanned most of the 18th century in Venice, was a librettist, as well as a prolific playwright.
In “The Servant of Two Masters,” he was updating the tradition of commedia dell’arte, a form of street theater that improvised plots around a cast of stock characters.
“Goldoni wrote his play in a lot of mockery of what earlier comedy was about,” George said. “He’s mocking the fact that the Italianate characters were so stereotypical.”
In commedia dell’arte, there was one plot line, which usually involved a servant trying to get even with his master or a lover trying to turn the tables on an unfaithful mistress. Goldoni’s play was an advance on this form because it told a unique story that was recorded in a script, where commedia dell’arte was improvised around conventional plots called lazzi.
Goldoni’s work preserves comic devices from the much older form but weaves them into a number of intersecting stories and gives the characters psychological depth by placing them in realistic contexts.
In “Two Masters,” that setting is the last day of carnival in Venice, when people were free to do what they wanted.
“There was revelry, drinking, long nights, getting the demons out,” George said. “Venice was notable for import/export, with a lot of people from foreign countries. Gambling was huge in Venice, and pirating, getting in the canals and hiding.”
Some of the action in the play, which George has updated with help from assistant director David Young, takes place on a canal.
“We have a gondola, and it floats,” George said. “There are two chase scenes in the show, Keystone Cops stuff.”
Such elaborate effects are possible because, while this is the last production on the Mainstage, it is the first time its resources have been fully exploited.
“The stage has never been used in its full 70-foot span, from house left to house right,” George said. “There are three buildings and a painted drop with lots of doors, even swinging doors, which are always comic.”
The plot centers on Truffaldino, the servant of the title, who is based on a trickster figure from commedia dell’arte and is trying to fool two masters.
“He wants two times the money and drink and food, but he doesn’t want to do two times the work,” George said. “Sound familiar from today’s marketplace?”
The complexities start to multiply in part because the two masters are involved in deceptions of their own, starting with their sexual identities, but Truffaldino makes everything worse.
“All the people we meet get duped by Truffaldino,” George said. “They get involved in arrangements that are going wrong, and all of it is his doing.
“Finally, he ties a knot that is so big and huge, and the way he gets out of it, he tells the truth, and the knot is untied. He tells the truth, and it astonishes everybody.”
The play developed out of a class George is teaching on comedy, from commedia dell’arte to the present day, and he will give a talk before next Thursday’s performance.
George believes contemporary comedians are too cerebral and are uncomfortable with the physical comedy Goldoni adapted for the stage. But he thinks fans of the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Milton Berle and Jerry Seinfeld will enjoy “The Servant of Two Masters.”
“It’s very identifiable shtick, as we call it today,” he said. “It is going to be highly physical. More than tomfoolery, but there’s bawdiness. It gets a little raunchy, but it’s not dirty.
“It deals with what a lot of people don’t understand, which is that comedy is only effective if it’s truthful.”
IF YOU GO
What: “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni
When: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, April 17 to 19 and April 24 to 26, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27 at 2 p.m. Speech communication pre-show event: “What’s So Funny? — Universal Humor,” on Thursday, April 24, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Mainstage Theatre, Salem State University, 352 Lafayette St., Salem
Tickets & info: $15 general admission, $10 students and seniors, free with Salem State student ID, at salemstatetickets.com or 978-542-6365