THEATER REVIEW | “The Servant of Two Masters”: Guthrie Theater memes it up


I’ll be precise in describing my experience at opening night of The Servant of Two Masters. Almost everyone around me laughed merrily for the show’s two-and-a-half-hour duration, and at its conclusion leaped to their feet to give a standing ovation. As for me, I laughed three times. Total.

Why the discrepancy? I can be precise in explaining that as well: it’s a question of how much amusement one gets out of the rapid-fire mentions of pop culture tropes during a well-polished Commedia dell’Arte performance on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. If a woman in 16th-century Italian garb standing up at the Guthrie and shouting, “Nobody puts Baby in a binder!” strikes you as highly amusing, do not delay in buying your ticket to The Servant of Two Masters, because you are really going to love it.

There’s a lot to admire about this production, developed by the Yale Repertory Theatre. Director Christopher Bayes smoothly integrates song, dance, and schtick into a well-paced production that never flags, no matter how much you might want it to. The costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart are works of art, particularly the fluffy gown worn by Clarice. Set designer Katherine Akiko Day gets a lot of oohs and aahs out of a starry-night scrim. The performers, further, are expert—but at the Guthrie, that largely goes without saying. The question is, to what end are their talents deployed?

The script, adapted [takes a deep breath] by Constance Congdon and further adapted by Bayes and Steven Epp from Christina Sibul’s translation of a play by Carlo Goldoni, has the performers, in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, freely riffing on the source material, taking liberties for the amusement of the audience. The gimmick in this instance is that though the performers are working in classic tradition, with classic source material, they’re aware they’re in the present day and constantly pepper the show with contemporary references.

This was a source of great amusement for the lion’s share of the December 7 audience. For me, though, the show fell into the uncanny valley of comedy: material that’s made to seem improvised even though it doesn’t feel improvised. Having seen the show only once, I can’t say which elements of the performance I saw were improvised and which weren’t, but the show contains an awful lot of ba-domp-ching punchlines that feel, no matter how up-to-the-minute the references, stale and calculated.

Here’s how this works in practice: my character mentions being short on cash. I now say “fiscal cliff,” which gets a laugh, because, hey, that’s in the news! I then mime someone falling off a cliff, which keeps the chuckle going. I then mime the person continuing to fall, which incites more laughter because, ha ha, that’s a tall cliff! Next line, next bit, repeat for 150 minutes.

At the center of all this, Epp himself is tireless as the clown Truffaldino. Jesse J. Perez, as Florindo, has great autoerotic fun with his character’s masculine flourishes, but as his lover-in-disguise Beatrice, Sarah Agnew seems lost. She delivers her lines crisply, but doesn’t seem invested in the sprit of the enterprise—to which I, were I a performer in this production, would say, “I’m with you, sister: un-im-pressed!” And then we’d both make the McKayla face, and everyone would laugh heartily.

The performers repeatedly mentioned Chanhassen, in seeming acknowledgment that this production traffics in the same kind of high-polish, low-denominator humor that goes over big with the dinner-theater crowd. If you like it at the Plymouth Playhouse, you’ll love it at the Guthrie. If you’re a snobby asshole like me, though, stay the hell away.

Read Jay Gabler’s review of the Guthrie Theater’s 2012 production of A Christmas Carol.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

6 thoughts on “THEATER REVIEW | “The Servant of Two Masters”: Guthrie Theater memes it up

  1. Wow. Do you know anything about theatre forms? or do you just hate theatre in general that isn’t spoon fed to you about what you should think? (commercial theatre)  And your explanation or should I say bad example of how the show goes or how Commedia is performed –just shows that you did no research whatsoever before writing your review –to understand and appreciate the Commedia form. You should sit in on their talk – backs sometime- where the general public are thanking the production for bringing life-joy- back to that theatre and city. And you are not a snobby a**hole—just a very very sad grown-up who has stopped laughing ,has forgotten your imagination, and sense of play at the door. It’s critics like you that are killing off different forms and styles of theatre because you want everything to be handed to you. Sad thing is – you’re young. So. yeah. thanks for killing another opportunity for your audiences to explore another style of theatre because of your “snobby-ness.”  Audiences. GO. form your own opinion. Be a kid at heart again for the holidays. Leave this Scrooge to his own undoing.

  2. This review was spot on for me. We must be kindred spirits in theater taste because I could not agree more with your assessment and experience of this play! I had some sense of what I was getting myself into before seeing this play (having seen plenty of the mistaken identity/zany Victorian shenanigans style plays already to know they are all basically the same), but as a die-hard Sarah Agnew fan I couldn’t resist. (Needless to say, this play didn’t exactly provide the best showcase for Agnew’s talents, but I understand, actors have to make money, too).

    I knew Servant of Two Masters was not exactly going to be life-changing theater. Heck, I knew it wouldn’t even be thought-provoking. But I was not prepared for it to be as painful as it was. I think I also laughed between 3 and 4 times. The topical references repeated ad nauseum and/or randomly really felt flat for me and in many ways, cheap and insulting of the audience’s intelligence. Towards the end I was practially gripping the sides of my seat because the whole shtick was getting so irritating I wanted to leap from my chair and run off the endless bridge.

    Yes, for what it was, the play was well done. The actors were clearly talented; they had the physical theater thing absolutely down pat. But this was not my thing.    

  3. I enjoyed “Servant” so much I’ve already brought friends back to see it on 3 separate occasions and even have tickets for 2 more shows. Now I understand that this show isn’t everyone’s “thing,” but when you’re in a room full of people laughing and you’re not – that says something about you right? I decided to go back and read some of your other recent theater reviews and you don’t like anything. IMO theaters should stop inviting you to review their shows until you stop taking yourself so seriously or you should hire someone who only reviews theater. So this is what you do with a graduate degree from Harvard?

  4. I don’t think that this reviewer wants “everything to be handed to [him].”  In fact, it seems like he has just the opposite problem with this production.  Stale, overdone pop-culture references are neither joyful nor imaginative.  They’re easy.

    The Guthrie is well aware that it needs to start appealing to a younger audience.  Their tactic here seems fairly transparent: “You know what kids like?  Memes.  If we have a Commedia show that’s basically just like a thousand memes strung together, then we’ll be relevant!”  I’m part of the demographic that the Guthrie is angling for, and I don’t need to see jokes that were done better on “The Daily Show” for fifty bucks a ticket.

    I also disagree that an audience member has to extensively research a form in order for a form to be enjoyable.  Last year’s “Burial at Thebes” was fantastic, whether or not you were an expert in Greek drama.  If you make a good Commedia show, people will like it – whether or not they know Pantalone from Truffaldino.

  5.  Commedia was performed, and still is, when the young lovers are innocent and want to rise above the miserly father, the overly-educated and arrogant father-in-law and the silly but well meaning servant In this production there is no differentiation among any of the actors or roles with the exception of the stately Sarah Agnew.

    Theatre that plays at the same level for hours grows dull. If I had a million dollars I’d buy myself a green dress and give the rest to Dominique Serrand so we could all see how this genre encompasses farce, satire, poignancy and startling truths all in one fine evening of theatre.


  6. You may be right that I’m so jaded that I’m completely useless as a reviewer, but I can add a couple of observations: (a) The Daily Planet publishes reviews by many writers, so if you’re looking for another perspective you may find one that’s more agreeable to you in our theater section. (b) It’s not true that I don’t like anything. Three shows I enjoyed recently: the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol, Theatre in the Round’s Summer and Smoke, and Urban Samurai’s Les Liaisons dangereuses.

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