For many Canadian arts communities summertime usually means theatre in the park. This tradition, hearkening back to Ancient Greece, seeks to bring audience members out of the ‘black box’ and into the open air where the natural elements often heighten the artistic experience. Ottawa in particular is known for having a wide variety of theatre companies who produce theatre outdoors during the summer months including: Bear & Co.; A Company of Fools; Fâcheux Théâtre; Ottawa Stilt Union; and, the longest running, Odyssey Theatre Company. In its 32nd season, Odyssey has built its brand on re-imagining the style of Commedia dell’Arte in a fresh and contemporary way. That being said, the biggest challenge that comes along with producing repertory the classics today is translating the often dated stereotypes and ideas that are inherent in the playtexts given the cultural, socio-political, and geographical context when they were originally written. Odyssey Theatre and their newest production, The Amorous Servant by Carlo Goldoni, achieves this better than most, so it is worth exploring how this company subverts (but also, at times, inadvertently reinforces) these stereotypes to create stock theatre that stands strong in 2017.
Goldoni’s impact on Italian comedy was massive. Perhaps best known for his work Servant of Two Masters, Goldoni revolutionized Commedia (which, up until then, had been mostly improvised) by presenting the slapstick comedy alongside representations of actual life and mannerisms through the characters and their behaviours. The Amorous Servant, for example does exactly this, yet Goldini gives us a strong female protagonist who rallies against a patriarchal sociofamilial structure by taking her destiny into her own hands and who succeeds in getting what she wants. Though the play is a product of it’s time (1752), it presciently reflects the growing population of educated women which was to come.
To summarize briefly: the plot revolves around the young serving maid Corallina (played by Lise Cormier in this production) who takes on a “heroic and honourable journey” (show program, 2017) to reunite her elderly master Ottavio (David Warburton) with his recently exiled son Florindo (Christopher Allen), both of whom Corallina is very much devoted to. Eager to teach Beatrice (Suzanne Roberts Smith), Ottavio’s new “money-hungry” wife, a lesson, Corallina finds herself the puppet master of a rather grand plot that involves marriage contracts, familial reconciliation, and the ‘unmasking’ of villainous schemers.
Directed by Odyssey veteran Attila Clemmen, he describes Corallina as an “18th century feminist with 20th century charm. She’s breaking lace ceilings all over the place”. We see evidence of this in Corallina’s bold decision to move in with the young bachelor Florindo who has been kicked out of his family home as Beatrice eyes Florindo’s inheritance for her own son Lelio (Abraham Asto). The young widow Corallina constantly stresses that her feelings for Florindo are strictly platonic and that she sees him as a brother (often citing that they were nursed by the same woman, Corallina’s own mother as proof of their kinship), in spite of the less than positive assumptions the rest of the town makes about their living arrangement. Corallina’s outright refusal of Florindo’s marriage proposal, something that would have given her a more than comfortable and secure life, because she is acutely aware of the false motivation behind it (Florindo is motivated by gratitude rather than love) still resonates in 2017 as we see Corallina choose her own happiness and deny a paternalistic offer although it would be to her advantage economically.
As my colleague, Ian Huffam, points out in his review: Odyssey’s production stands up reasonably well in the 21st century. Though, there is one trope I’d like to examine a little further: the “greedy interloper” or the infamous gold digger stereotype. This, I feel, is still an incredibly pervasive and harmful idea that is still given a platform in society today and in the mainstream media this trope is almost always represented by a woman.
Beatrice is undeniably painted as the villain of this story. She schemes to come between Ottavio and his first born son Florindo so that Ottavio might change his will to include herself and Leilo instead. She is portrayed as being deceitful and perfidious, using her sexual prowess to get what she wants and, perhaps worst of all, she is caught red-handed admitting her wishes to see her elderly husband dead and the inheritance in her own hands. At the end of the play, the righteous Corallina expels the witchy Beatrice from the house, convincing Ottavio to at least give her and Lelio a pittance to live out the rest of their days. While it can be agreed that Beatrice is not a very kind woman, can we say with full certainty that her motivations are actually malicious or is she simply a caricature of women’s struggles to survive in the 1700s?
Let’s break this down: while middle- to upper-class women in Italy certainly had some access to education, they did not have much, if any, access to a variety of employment opportunities which were limited to being nuns, wives, mothers, or prostitutes (though the last one is not very likely for the rigid Catholic Italian genteel class). Beatrice is coming from another marriage which we can assume didn’t leave her very well off (or perhaps it did, but she’s come to the end of her finances) which is why she has chosen to remarry. We can also assume that Ottavio has remarried for pleasure and comfort in his dotage, given that he already has a virile heir in son Florindo and thus cannot be said to be motivated by a need to further propagate his lineage. So then why does Ottavio hesitate so much with including his new wife and step-son in his will (I mean, other than as a plot device to create dramatic tension)?
Beatrice’s actions are portrayed as being supremely selfish and greedy, but the same could easily be said of the doddering Ottavio who obviously doesn’t marry Beatrice for her personality and seems to only give in to her ‘demands’ when the promise of sexual satisfaction seems nigh. Florindo is also seen in a similarly sympathetic light despite his character being rather whiny, spoiled, and completely dependent on Corallina for just about everything. Beatrice is acutely aware that if Ottavio passes away without changing his will, she and her son would be left destitute and at the hands of the new Master of the House, Florindo, who might be less than enthused at the prospect of having his step-mother and step-brother as roommates. Perhaps this is the very situation she is coming from and is determined to never experience again. In any case, her desires in The Amorous Servant are clearly motivated by a need to survive rather than malice and, in fact, we never see her harm or even attempt to harm any of the other characters.
The trope of the Gold Digger is so famous that Kanye West capitalized on co-writing and recording an entire song about it in the early 2000s. However, the consequences of the pervasiveness of this idea are still very evident in contemporary culture like in the portrayal in the media of young female celebrities who have accused their male partners and/or colleagues of abuse (see: Amber Heard); in the popularity of the prenuptial agreement and the often stereotyped reasoning for obtaining one (“If you ain’t no punk holla we want prenup/ WE WANT PRENUP!/Yeah/ It’s something that you need to have/ ‘Cause when she leaves yo ass she gon’ leave with half”- ‘Gold Digger’, Kanye West 2005); and also in our now socially ingrained ideas regarding what we see as being acceptable motivations for getting married (i.e. we often label young women who marry older men as being disingenuous in their intentions because over the centuries plays like The Amorous Servant have tried to convince us that women who do this are villainous schemers solely motivated by greed; but we do not have the same pervasive concepts of men who do this or the older men who marry younger women). Of course this is not to denigrate prenuptial agreements, just to highlight that they are a contract agreed upon by two consenting parties rather than an assumption that any woman who wants to get married is bound to be in it to steal her husband’s money. To think of young women who marry older men as “being in it for the money”is still to ignore the complex socioculutural and political reasons why women may still find themselves in need of doing so. It is also to ignore the obvious dichotomy that an older men who marry younger women are “in it for the sex”.
Before concluding, I’d like to touch back on Odyssey’s production which provided the initial departure point for this article. The performance itself, thanks in large part to Clemann’s fresh and funky mise-en-scene, is really well done and offers audience members an unforgettable night of theatre under the stars. The women in this show absolutely shine with Cormier and Roberts Smith commanding attention whenever they enter the playing space. Roberts Smith in particular does a great job with such a cliched character using bull-like gestures to convey not only her stubbornness but also her fiery temperament; and she delivers each line with a delicious sort of gusto that you can’t help but relish in. This thoughtful performance is perhaps the reason why we can, in 2017, analyze the character of Beatrice on a far deeper level than just writing her off as nothing more than the ‘evil step-mother’ archetype.
Odyssey Theatre has built itself up on fusing the nostalgia of the Classics with a more contemporary vibe and The Amorous Servant is no exception. While it may inadvertently reinforce some negative tropes about women, it strives to offer a depth in the quality of the performance that in turn encourages the viewer to question our own assumptions about these characters.
The Amorous Servant plays until August 20th at Strathcona Park (the north end, near the Russian embassy). More info about the show can be found here.
The Amorous Servant by Carlo Goldoni
Presented by Odyssey Theatre
Directed by Attila Clemmen
Starring (in alphabetical order): Christopher Allen, Abraham Asto, Joshua Browne, Lise Cormier, Tiffany Claire Martin, Chris Ralph, Suzanne Roberts Smith, David Warburton