This is why we live in New York: because an acclaimed Puerto Rican director is presenting an 18th century classic of Italian theater, in Spanish; and because the shows will be free, toured from borough to borough with the explicit goal of bringing world-class theater to "the most economically depressed areas of the community."
The play is Carlo Goldoni's The Mistress of the Inn, originally La locandiera, sometimes known as Mirandolina, after its heroine. Known in his time as "the Italian Moliere", Goldoni was born in Venice in 1707, and would author some 150 plays before his death in 1792. Though he labored intently at more serious works, his biggest successes were in the commedia dell'arte, the "comedies of masks" beloved by the Italian public of the era. The director is Dean Zayas, who leads the Traveling Theatre of the Drama Department of the University of Puerto Rico.
This play, says Zayas, "has worked for the Traveling Theatre already in Puerto Rico and in Spain." Why? Because "it is a comedy, to start with, and the comedy is a battle between the sexes. It is one of those feminist pieces written 250 years ago, and it's pertinent today because of the feminist movement and all those things. The main character of Mirandello, she goes around getting men to fall in love with her, but she won't compromise with any of them."
Zayas's argument is that great theater--into which category he places enduring comedies like Mistress--deserves to be seen by everyone, not just those who can afford a Broadway ticket price.
"The reason" for touring the show, he explains, "is to educate people. To show people how to appreciate good theater, theater that differs from what they see every day on television or at the movies. That's the aim behind all this.
"The quality stuff, the good drama, those wonderful plays that we used to have years ago, they rarely attract people [today]," Zayas says a bit wistfully. "Another kind of entertainment will attract more. And it's the same in Europe, in Puerto Rico, all over Latin America, and here in North America, too. I wish I could say it's just here, but it's not. There's no consolation--it is all over."
Preparing the play for its performances here was no easy task, Zayas says, especially considering his audiences will be outdoors, and, for the most part, standing for the length of the show. "It is originally a three-act play," he explains. "I have done a lot of editing--I cry every time I have to edit it. It's not a theater where people are comfortably sitting down with air conditioning and everything else. I can push it to an hour and a half, at the longest."
But, he contends, dealing with these and other problems--like getting the accents of his actors, who come from many different Latin American ethnicities, to be uniform--are well worth it, considering the goal: bringing high-quality plays to the masses for free.
"Each time you present one of these projects to people, the way they react, the way they appreciate it, it will surprise you all the time," he explains. "Maybe much more educated people would not understand certain things in this play. The common man will understand much more." He offers an example, more familiar to most New Yorkers. "I get that reaction, although it's a bit different, at the Shakespeare in the Park.
"I watched the audience at Twelfth Night, and it was nice to see how many different ethnicities...and people from different economic backgrounds. And they were all togther watching that Shakespeare play and enjoying it."
Mistress of the Inn begins performances tomorrow, July 31, at 3pm in Battery Park in front of Clinton Castle. For a full schedule of locations and performance times, call (212) 354-1293.