While it has been said that good servants often make good masters, it is a well-known fact that clever slaves with dim-witted owners make great comedy. That is the simple premise behind some of the world’s oldest laughs, including the ones that can be experienced this weekend at performances of “Scapin” at the University of Maine.
Guest director Julie Goell, an expert in physical comedy and commedia dell’arte, wrings every drop of drollery from the play and fine performances from her cast of a dozen students. She is helped immensely by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell’s 1996 update of Moliere’s play, which was first performed in Paris in 1671.
The story belongs to Moliere and to the Greeks, from whom the French playwright “borrowed” liberally: Two servants — one a masterful schemer, the other his guileless accomplice — try to help their young masters succeed at true love while exacting revenge on the boys’ fathers for decades of real and imagined abuse.
The version of “Scapin” by Irwin and O’Donnell updates the language and leaves room for some improvised inside jokes that in this production are about campus bigwigs, the Bangor theater scene and gay marriage.
Goell sets the story in Naples, Italy, during the 1950s, after the Allied liberation from fascism. The director’s addition of live music adds depth to the production and its characters. The six musicians, dressed as a band of traveling gypsies, sit on stage throughout the action. Their presence and the haunting melodies they perform are a constant reminder that there was more happening in the streets of Naples than righting the course of true love.
Anthony Arnista as Scapin leads a fine cast. Goell has honed the young actor’s natural instinct for comedy to a razor-sharp edge. Like most wily servants, Arnista’s Scapin can turn on a dime to adapt to his master’s mood swings and to each circumstance. It is the actor’s pliability that allows him to portray all the character’s foibles and good intentions with equal zest.
As his fellow slave Sylvestre, Land Cook proves Arnista’s equal and the actors give fresh presentations to some of the world’s oldest gags. Dustin Sleight and Joe Mitchell as the masters whose sons have fallen for the wrong women serve up delightful portrayals. The actors create characters that are funhouse-mirror images of each other and depict them with perfect bombast.
This production of “Scapin,” which looks and sounds professional, perfectly showcases the talent now working both on- and offstage in the UM Theater Department. The actors prove so adept at the challenging physical moves throughout the production that they at times appear more like acrobats than actors. Dan Bilodeau’s delightful and slightly dizzy set and lighting design provide an ideal fit for Goell’s vision.
As the days grow colder, the nights longer and the trees barer, “Scapin” generates delightful warmth that an audience will be able to cling to for days. Area theatergoers can only hope that “Scapin” is the start of a beautiful friendship between Goell and the UM Theater Department.