The troupe regroups to inject comic anarchy into an 18th century Italian play.
Last week, as director Chris Bayes watched people pass outside the window of his Guthrie Theater guest apartment in downtown Minneapolis, memories came rushing back.
"Here I am, looking at the Metrodome," said the Macalester College grad who got his start at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. "I saw the Rolling Stones' 'Steel Wheels' tour there. This is the place where I cut my teeth professionally. It's great to be back."
Bayes is staging "The Servant of Two Masters," an updated adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century comedy that he first directed in 2010 at Yale Repertory Theatre. Adapted by Constance Congdon, with additional material by Bayes and former Jeune Luner Steven Epp, the show's star. "Servant" opens Friday in the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage.
The production offers more than poignant memories for Bayes, who spent six seasons in the 1980s as an actor, composer and designer at Jeune Lune. After joining the Guthrie acting company in 1989, he appeared in two dozen productions over the next seven seasons under the late director Garland Wright.
He gets to work with such talented actors as Epp, Sarah Agnew (another Jeune Lune company member) and Randy Reyes, whom Bayes taught at Juilliard. (Bayes is now head of physical theater at the Yale School of Drama.)
Goldoni's comedy is "the perfect show for the holidays," he said, "because it's so full of energy and irreverent wit."
Topical and timely
"Servant" revolves around Truffaldino (Epp). This stock character is always ravenous as he tends to the wishes of two employers who are at odds. His masters are Beatrice (Agnew), who has disguised herself as her dead brother, and Florindo (Jesse Perez), who is both Beatrice's lover and the killer of her brother.
Since its opening at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010, Baye's kinetic production has toured and garnered great reviews. Its mix of improvised and set pieces, which honor the commedia dell'arte form, played in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. The Washington Post called it "sublimely directed" and "deliriously happy-making."
Given that it's been such a hit for Bayes and his team, shouldn't it be old hat and easy to re-stage?
Not at all, he said. For one thing, the production includes places for on-the-spot jokes, and those can sometimes fall flat.
"We play it like jazz," Bayes said. "Aside from the sensibility, there is something about allowing a virtuosic acting company to strut their stuff."
"Servant" also uses topical material from the local scene to spice up its humor. In D.C., that meant lots of political jokes, attached to such names as Santorum and Pelosi.
"We had to clean it up, take a comb to it and find what jokes still remained alive" in Minnesota, Bayes said. This local flavor in the Guthrie version will not be of the uff da, Ole and Lena school.
"We don't dumb it down, but it's very up-to-the-minute," he said. "We literally take jokes from NPR five minutes before we go onstage."
Language of play
While director Bayes is fond of "Servant," he has a love-hate relationship with Goldoni.
"He tried to bury commedia later in his career when he started writing Chekhovian, naturalistic work," he said. "But he'd written this document, this scenario, that he later thought was too vulgar. I'm trying to give the play back to the actors, put the bawdy, naughty, fun parts back in."
Those fun parts are among the things that Agnew finds attractive about "Servant."
"Commedia is street theater that's immediate, so all the characters are dealing with their real base desires," she said. "The genius of the play lies in the anarchy and possibility that it could absolutely flop at any moment. It's like watching the Olympics and seeing someone teeter on the brink of collapse. My hope is that people will leave the show completely fatigued from belly laughing."
Bayes said that one of the practices he has carried over from his days with Wright and Jeune Lune is a faithfulness to an acting ensemble united by sensibility.
"We all share this squirrelly language of play," he said.
Twin Cities-based performer Reyes is joining the cast as a waiter, but will move into the principal role of Florindo in Boston, the next leg of what Bayes' calls his "lopsided caravan-of-misfit-toys tour."
"I've always wanted to work with Chris because he has a dark but beautiful clown sensibility that's very funny and similar to mine," said Reyes. "It's a super-physical show with a lot of improv and free play within this world, so I'm not even concerned about remembering my lines. I can't wait to let it rip."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390