'The Servant of Two Masters' aims for comedy jazz

The cast of The Servant of Two Masters.
The cast of The Servant of Two Masters.
Photo by Richard Termine
Christopher Bayes and Steven Epp have a long history of working together, going back to their days in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's "boot camp" back in the 1980s. In the years after that, "we looked for ways to work together but our schedule didn't allow for it," Epp says.

That opportunity came, sadly enough, after Jeune Lune folded. Bayes had been in talks to do a main stage show at Yale. "We looked at doing An Accidental Death of an Anarchist, but we couldn't get the rights," Bayes says. "I was walking down the street and I thought, Servant of Two Masters."

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The production now arrives at the Guthrie Theater after several stops around the country, including Washington D.C. and New Haven.

The play has seen a long life. It was written in 1743 by Carlo Goldoni. Though what the playwright initially crafted was "a scenario, not a play," Bayes says.

It was handed off to a commedia dell'arte group, who worked the material into a full play. After a few years, Goldoni took it back because he didn't like the direction the work had taken. "He took out all the naughty stuff. We put all the naughty stuff back in," Bayes says.

As you would guess from the title, the play centers on a servant (Epp), who tries to double his income by working in two households. There are complications aplenty, of course, but the creators -- even while using an adaptation by Constance Congton -- see plenty of places throughout to build the comedy.

It helps that many in the ensemble have been involved in earlier productions of the piece. "We wanted actors who would share the sense of a company. They have all come together with a shared language. It feel like a company who are enjoying what they are doing," Bayes says.

"It's a classic commedia. It has a great skeleton to attach what you want to throw at it. We've honed a particular American attack on commedia," Epp says. "We come from all kinds of backgrounds. It wouldn't be right to do it in an Italian style, because we are not Italians. We don't want to treat commedia like something that is locked up."

The comedic style "is just what works. The Marx Brothers did not do research. They found out what works," Bayes says. 

Bayes draws a music analogy. "There are these jazz moments where we can leave the melody for a moment, do a solo, and find a way back," he says.

That can be a bit of improvised business, a reaction to an onstage flub, or heckles aimed at late-arriving audience members.

"This is the kind of show when something goes wrong, you totally can take it and run," Epp  said. "You have to be willing to make an ass of yourself. There has to be room for absolute failure and humiliation, or you won't get to the other extreme of that gem of a moment you couldn't plan."


The Servant of Two Masters
Through Jan. 20
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612-377.2224 or visit online.

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Guthrie Theater

818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415


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