Something Old

Classical theater, like classical music, is often regarded as something that must be tolerated, if rarely enjoyed. Many theater-goers routinely endure an entire evening of, say, Shakespearean drama or Wagnerian opera, dutifully applauding a performance more out of respect for its standing as a classic than for its ability to engage a contemporary audience. "It looked like it was supposed to be funny, so I laughed" is a common refrain.

To remedy that situation, modern-day directors frequently set classic plays ahead in time in the hope that audiences will more readily identify with the onstage action. Last season, for example, director James Dunn set Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors on a California beach, and the Denver Center Theatre Company production, replete with surfer talk and pastel colors, came alive in ways not found in traditional productions of the play.

This year Dunn is back at the DCTC with a production of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, an Italian commedia dell'arte play from the eighteenth century. Rather than break with tradition and update the play to another period, however, Dunn has chosen to present a time-honored staging of the piece, complete with Italianate scenery, costumes and masks. Aided by a new translation and adaptation of the script by Sylvie Drake, he has attempted to inject new life into an old warhorse while remaining faithful to its original form.

Commedia plots are notoriously convoluted, and throughout his career, Goldoni was known for trying to get audiences to abandon their fascination with plot and concentrate more on character. Popular entertainment forms die hard, however, and Dunn occasionally pokes fun at the byzantine plot twists Goldoni grudgingly included in Servant. Letters describing developments unfamiliar to characters (but already known to us) are delivered by speed-readers whose vocal dexterity is reminiscent of the old Federal Express commercials.

A talented cast works hard to capture the commedia style, which asked actors to improvise on traditional scenarios (sex, greed and avarice), stock characters (lechers, learned men and clowns) and standard bits of business (slapstick routines called "lazzi"). But while the production manages to tickle our funny bone, it too often seems caught between its desire to be faithful to tradition and its need to entertain a modern audience.

Whenever a theatrical relic is dusted off, part of the enjoyment in watching it comes from viewing the past through the universal lens of human nature, which has changed little over the years. We're willing to suspend our disbelief in these outdated antics and bizarre behavior if we can at least find common ground among the eccentricities. Unfortunately, this two-and-a-half-hour production never quite marries the past with the present, resulting in situations that are more confusing than they are illuminating and a play that is clothed in incomprehensible humor--even if it does hit us over the head now and then.--Lillie

The Servant of Two Masters, through November 15 at the Ricketson Theater, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

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Jim Lillie