How Do You Make Commedia Dell'Arte Really Funny?

How do you make the centuries-old techniques of commedia dell'arte work on stage in 2016?

"The trap of it is to think of it as something that has an antique style, something that isn't alive anymore," says Christopher Bayes. And he should know. He has a long history with professional clowning and movement-based theatre, and he's directing Theatre for a New Audience's production of The Servant of Two Masters, Carlo Goldoni's commedia classic from 1746. (The show runs through this weekend at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.)

"Unless you take the legacy [of the style] into the present moment, it's not going to be true commedia," says Bayes. "If you're not sourcing the news today, or at least having the appetite to investigate that, it's not alive. The key is to be able to work with people who understand how to do it."

That's the case in this production, which uses Constance Congdon's adaptation of Christina Sibul's translation. It received its premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre (Bayes is the head of physical acting at Yale School of Drama), and it later played in Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

For this production, the script was further enhanced in rehearsal by Bayes and the actor Steven Epp. Epp stars as Truffaldino, a servant who's so hungry he takes two jobs to survive. This leads to all sorts of hijinks, which are enhanced by improvised jokes and shenanigans.

Epp and Bayes have been working together for over 32 years, when they were part of the Minneapolis-based physical theater troupe Theatre de la Jeune Lune. "Now we're different parts of each other's brain," says Bayes. "There's a deep trust between us. He's fearless. It's like what Lucille Ball said, and I'm paraphrasing: 'It's not that I'm funny. It's that I'm brave.’ “