With all of the current discussion of what constitutes appropriate comedy during this sensitive time, what a pleasure it was to simply laugh my way to a satisfying answer. "The Servant of Two Masters" is Carlo Goldoni's masterpiece, his unique blend of Commedia del arte types and traditions, and his own more realistic characterizations. This production, convincingly directed by Bartlett Sher, with commedia instructor Christopher Bayes, gives us not only the physical reality and theatrical style of the 18th Century, but a clear understanding of why this manner of comedy was so popular then, and why it's still so effective now. Above all, this strikingly skilled cast simply revels in the sheer joy of the stage, of playing parts and performing business and connecting with an audience. The result is simply entertainment which, of course, is anything but simple.
The story is a convoluted scheme whereby Tuffaldino intends to serve two separate masters simultaneously, thereby doubling both his income and his food allotment. Also thereby finding himself hopelessly entangled in hidden identities, intended, attempted and foiled romances, and endless opportunities for clever lazzi, set-pieces filled with comic nonsense.
This production gives us a loving re-creation of the style and spirit of 18th Century theatre. The scenic design, by Douglas Stein, is merely a hanging curtain, split in the center, leaving goodly parts of the backstage and side-stages dimly visible. The lighting design, which begins with a ceremonial lighting of real flame footlights, and then gradually brightens to a soft, golden wash, is by Jennifer Tipton. Beautiful costumes, from the diamond patterned Arlecchino costume worn by Truffaldino to the rich and elegant courtly gowns, to the overstuffed Il Dottore, are admirably accomplished. Finishing it all off, director Sher has chosen an acting style for his company that neatly blends the most formal sorts of period posturing with a more naturalistic style for the lovers and parents, and almost circus-broad slapstick (literally) for the stock characters. The result is a textbook of 18th Century theatre that never feels academic.
Dan Donohue, as the harlequin character Truffalino, has perhaps the most stylized role on stage, and for me that's a mixed blessing. While the physical movements, affected voice and exaggerated gestures are fascinating, by the third act they seem a bit too constraining and even tiresome. To be sure, Mr. Donohue is greatly talented. A bit where he's trying to moisten a piece of bread in his mouth without eating it is hilarious and masterful. His scenes with Brighella, (the remarkable R. Hamilton Wright), establish the comic universe for the entire play. The sheer range of his ability is quite amazing. Still, by the later parts of the evening, I found myself wishing for more variety, more of the spontaneous delight found earlier. During the banquet scene, where food is literally flying through the air, I was much more aware of the precision and practice required to accomplish the business than I was amused by the action. His is the only role, however, where I was less than satisfied with the performance.
Laurence Ballard, as Il Dottore, and Jeff Steitzer as Pantalone are absolutely wonderful. Mr. Ballard accomplishes one scene in which he appears to gain and lose about 80 pounds and a foot or so in height. Steitzer is a whirlwind of scheming and less-than-masterful manipulation. Beatrice, a woman posing as a man, is played with gallantry and great focus by Elisabeth Adwin, and her absurdly self-impressed lover Florindo, is smartly postured by Frank Corrado. The young lover Clarice is sweetly and wistfully inconsequential, and deliciously embodied by Patti Cohenour, who also brings a lovely singing voice to the play's occasional musical interludes. Too, Jason Cottle, as her earnest but slightly befuddled young suitor Silvio is beautifully realized. Finally, Jane Jones lends bravado, swagger and conviction to the servant Smeraldina, perhaps the play's most modern character. In this adaptation by Constance Congdon, the role of women is never left unquestioned, and Ms. Jones, in wonderfully direct congress with the audience, makes it clear that all of the plays social presumptions are worthy of debate.
In the end, though, "The Servant of Two Masters" is a play about the amusement of being ridiculously human, and about the sheer delight of the act of theatre. With the abundance of talent and experience that has been assembled in this production, and the beautiful attention to style and detail, we have an evening of laughter that reminds us that our history has always been one of terrible events, uncertain futures and great sorrow. And that with our eyes on the stage, with the abundant gifts coming to us from the stage, it's all just a bit more bearable.
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