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Lamb's Players is staging a wild, musical version of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. The play is, and is not, a sample of the traditional commedia dell'arte. And the differences eventually forced Goldoni to leave Italy, in 1761, and live the rest of his life in Paris.

The commedia began in Padua, around 1545, nineteen years before Shakespeare was born. Companies traveled in carts, first to neighborhoods, then towns. Using a backdrop, simple props, and a portable stage, they performed in public squares. They had to be good because admission was free, and they passed a hat after.

One of the props: two flat pieces of wood fastened with leather at one end. When Arlecchino, the chief clown, would hit someone, the "slap stick" made a loud "thwack" - the noise much more violent than the actual blow. The current term comes from this device.

Actors improvised comical stories, called scenarii: old men separating young lovers (as in The Fantasticks, which carries on the tradition); duped oafs, vanity punished. Everyone knew where the story was going. How they got there differed with each performance.

The style came to be known as commedia dell'arte. The name - "comedy of craft," or "skill" - calls attention to the artistry.

Characters were types. An actor played one type exclusively. Even though they wore half-masks, the actors prayed they would grow at least one distorted facial feature - a long nose, say - that would set them apart.

Each type has his or her lazzi, jokes and often acrobatic business appropriate for the character. Audiences looked forward to these spontaneous eruptions as much, if not more, than to the familiar stories.

Yes, "her." From the start, commedia included women, even though across Europe and Britain, they weren't allowed on the stage (boys played Shakespeare's female characters, for example). In a typical troupe of 10 performers, at least three would be women. One of the most famous, Isabella Andreini (1562-1604), had a marquis name and drew large audiences wherever she performed.

Originally the scenarii were just roadmaps for the plot. The dialogue was un-scripted, and improvisation reigned. While he still left room for improv, Goldoni wrote down speeches and scenes, he made the characters more realistic, and converted "live" comedy into a "theater of the book."

These changes - and, many say, Goldoni's popularity - infuriated Count Carlo Gozzi, who wrote fairy tales in the older tradition. The aristocratic Gozzi waged a public war on the populist Goldoni (whose operatic liberettos also featured tighter plots, and more realistic characters and emotions).

The Servant of Two Masters (1753) may have been one of the last straws for Gozzi. He roared at the upstart. By writing so much down, he argued, Goldoni bled commedia of imagination and vitality. He was a curse on comedy (legend has it that Gozzi even shouted these words during a performance).

The dispute became so acrimonious, and Goldoni so hurt, he fled to Paris. After that, he wrote all his plays, and both volumes of his memoirs, in French.

In the memoirs, Goldoni states his case: the commedia had become flat and predictable. While keeping many of the basic scenarios, he stripped off the masks and represented actual life and manners. In many ways, the gentle, optimistic Goldoni was a revolutionary.

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