More Thoughts About Mirandolina

The Mercury News reviewer generally likes Center REP’s Mirandolina a lot, but she calls it a “door-slamming farce” and says that it never quite achieves the “fever pitch” she thinks it needs.

Alas, Goldoni, the great Venetian playwright famed for “Servant of Two Masters,” is sometimes funnier on the page than the stage. Near, former head of San Jose Repertory Theatre, directs with a light touch, but the first act lacks pep, and the last act needs more of a breakneck pace to make the farce pop. A little more speed would give the zaniness more zip.

I think she’s right in thinking — despite the excellent production — that the play itself comes across as a bit thin, especially for a play widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces in Italian theater. But I think she’s wrong in assessing why; she thinks the production isn’t zany enough, but I think the problem is really that the play loses some of its character in translation.

Goldoni’s play is more of a comedy of manners than a farce. Goldoni was writing in reaction to the commedia dell’arte of his time, which had become tired and formulaic, repeating the same slapstick gags over and over. On the one hand, Molière breathed new life into commedia dell’arte by taking its small-town character types and making them grander and more important, using comedy as a way of mocking and satirizing what he saw as important evils of society. Goldoni went in the other direction, keeping his characters at a more human scale, but drawing them less like cartoon characters and more like real people. But for that to work for us, we have to perceive the humanity in them, not just see them as stock characters in a zany farce.

Molière’s larger-than-life characters transcend cultural borders more easily — Tartuffe and Orgon and Harpagon and Arnolphe are larger-than-life social monsters whom we can recognize in our own society even if the details of 18th-century Paris society are a mystery to us. But Goldini’s more human-sized characters — innkeepers, servants, merchants, rural nobility — are woven into the fabric of 18th-century Tuscan and Venetian society, and Goldoni took it for granted that his audiences would be familiar with their quirks and foibles simply from living among people like them every day. These characters tend to seem remote to us today, and they have concerns that can seem more artificial than real to us. So it’s hard to bring them to life in a way a modern American audience can understand and connect with.

One way to accomplish that might be to rewrite the plays a bit. Goldoni’s best-known play in English, for example, is The Servant of Two Masters, but it’s most often done in versions that are more freely adapted, tightening the story and broadening the farce. Center REP’s version does a bit of this: The long, hilarious swordfight in the second act, for example, is an interpolation; in the play as written, the fight is interrupted almost as soon as it begins.

Another tactic is to move a play from 18th-century Italy to more modern times. A popular version of The Servant of Two Masters in English, for example, moves the action to London in the 1960s. I did this sort of thing myself (though not with a Goldoni play) with The Riot Grrrl on Mars by “translating” the characters and situations to modern equivalents that the audience would recognize more readily and with less need for explanation of the cultural assumptions being made along the way. The original opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, has a story straight out of the commedia dell’arte in which a young, determined Italian woman journeys to Africa to rescue her lover, who has been kidnapped by pirates on the Mediterranean, from the Bey of Algiers; in The Riot Grrrl on Mars, a young, determined punk rocker flies to outer space to rescue her boyfriend, who has been abducted by a UFO, from the King of Mars.

Center REP’s Mirandolina tightens the dialogue a bit, updates the rather formal Italian to breezy modern English, and adds a few songs and that splendid swordfight, but even so, it mostly stays close to Goldoni’s story and characters. That gives us a more direct view into Goldoni’s play, which is a good thing, but it can also make situations and characters seem quaint to us, which is not so good. We American playgoers have to stretch a little harder to see the humanity that is shared between Goldoni’s world and our own. A worthwhile stretch to make, all the same.

(Now, if it were me translating, I’d probably have made the Marquis the arrogant head of a once-successful dot-com that has recently gone bust, and ….)

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