Over half a century later, it’s easy to perceive but hard to explain what made Giorgio Strehler’s production of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters one of the most celebrated European stage events of its time. Written in 1745, Goldoni’s rompish play marks an intermediate stage in his program to make the Italian actors of his time take off their masks and turn away from the quasi-improvised commedia dell’arte, the conventions of which had by then grown stale, toward a new awareness of reality. But the post-World War II Italy in which Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro di Milano emerged as a major artistic force had enough reality to contend with in the misery of its bombed-out streets, and there was a widespread feeling that the realism pioneered in the theater by Goldoni had run its course.
Accordingly, Strehler created a version that would have seemed both a joyous gratification and an outrage to Goldoni: While the play is staged wholly inside the stylized conventions of commedia, choreographed down to the smallest syllable, we see at the sides of the pocket-size stage the actors getting ready to enter, plus the musicians and the “prompter” (who gets caught up in the action when it spills over). The realism outside the frame is like a hard shell containing the frothy, nutty nonsense inside. First staged in 1947, Strehler’s production has been brought back countless times; Ferruccio Soleri, who is responsible for the current restaging and also plays Arlecchino, first performed the role when the show last played New York—in 1960. Like the show, he retains the demented verve that made it famous initially—even if you sometimes wish everybody onstage would slow down, take a cue from Goldoni’s later career, and be real now and then.