Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Fatally Unfamiliar With The Concept Of Wit

The Guthrie Theater is currently presenting Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 commedia dell’arte masterpiece, “The Servant Of Two Masters”, in a production originally mounted at Yale Repertory Theatre and afterward presented at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company prior to the production’s arrival in Minneapolis.

“A Servant Of Two Masters” is the lone commedia dell’arte play that has survived into modern times; all other commedia dell’arte vehicles have fallen by the wayside (although the commedia dell’arte genre hangs on by a thread in the opera house and on the ballet stage).

I have not read the Goldoni, but persons familiar with the original text say there is virtually no Goldoni in the “Servant Of Two Masters” being served up to Guthrie audiences. The text in use on the Guthrie stage apparently is no more than ten per cent Goldoni, if that; the rest is pop-art filler, with much onstage adlibbing.

Whoever devised this production—the Guthrie program book states that the text in use was “adapted by Constance Congdon, further adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes, from a translation by Christina Sibul”—must have been of the belief that Goldoni cannot reach modern audiences unless presented as Saturday Night Live comedy skit. The result: the production was fatally unfamiliar with the concept of wit, on which all genuine comedy must be based.

The comedy in this production of “The Servant Of Two Masters” was broad comedy, and low comedy, and totally reliant upon references from 1970s television and the current pop-music scene. If one was not up-to-snuff on ancient episodes of “Sanford And Son” as well as the current goings-on of Beyoncé, one was lost as soon as the house lights darkened.

The adlibbing, in which the cast members had been encouraged, was gruesome—in comparison, standard courtroom repartee is a model of sparkling inventiveness and deserves to be chiseled in stone—and the “acting”, if one might call it that, was at a standard no one would tolerate at dinner theater in the Wisconsin Dells.

At the performance we attended, Saturday night before last, half the audience laughed uproariously while half the audience appeared to be attending a wake. There were numerous walkouts at intermission—and we should have been among the walkouts, as the second half was worse than the first half (and the play’s resolution was half an hour too long).

What was such unsophisticated fare doing onstage at The Guthrie? And who was responsible for importing this disaster? “The Servant Of Two Masters” was the most depressing thing I have seen, on any stage, for a very long time.

The production was so jarringly inept that it convinced me that The Guthrie needs to install new leadership as soon as possible—and that it is long past time for Joe Dowling to be shown the door, and the entire artistic leadership team booted. Dowling’s long reign at The Guthrie has been a financial success—but at the expense of dumbing-down virtually everything The Guthrie presents. Dowling’s artistic legacy, if he has one, is a coarsening of the repertory and a coarsening of the manner of presentation.

The Guthrie should, without delay, contact Nicholas Hytner at London’s National Theatre and ask Hytner to recommend someone from The National’s staff to lead The Guthrie. Hytner succeeded in getting an artistically-floundering National Theatre back on track within two years of his 2003 arrival; Hytner knows what needs to be done in such situations, and Hytner surely knows someone capable of engineering a turnaround at The Guthrie.

If The Guthrie does not do something along these lines, and soon, the institution is in danger of becoming irrelevant if not an embarrassment: nothing more than a commercial showcase for lowest-common-denominator fare.

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