Servant of Two Masters
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 7, 2005
In farce, where pranks and misunderstandings are plentiful and plot is often predictable, the joy comes in the emotional journey. The audience, usually sympathetic with the underdog, willingly takes the ride. Servant of Two Masters, the 18th century comedy by Carlo Goldoni, has all the elements of a typical farce.
The plot is simple. Truffaldino, a harlequin figure, is unemployed and hungry. By happenstance, he finds work as a servant to both Beatrice—who has disguised herself as her deceased brother, who was betrothed to Clarice—and to Florindo, Beatrice’s lover, for whom she is searching. After Clarice, daughter of Pantalone, hears of the death of her betrothed, she subsequently becomes engaged to Silvio, son of the pompous Dr. Lombardi.
The play, newly adapted and directed by Holly Golden, opens with Karl Gregory as Truffaldino confessing his hunger. He tells us this with the eagerness of someone who doesn’t know a moment of hunger. In an otherwise spirited production, Gregory sidesteps the perfect opportunity to connect with his audience and elicit our sympathy. Rather, he heads straight for the storytelling and the physicality that farce encourages, hoping the audience will be there for the subsequent laughs. But in farce, as in drama, the audience must empathize with the desire of the characters each step of the way. Without pathos, pratfalls wear thin quickly. This Truffaldino’s quest becomes a device rather than a real desire, sacrificing the heart of what is at stake—the pursuit of a good meal. In doing so, Gregory loses the devotion of his audience.
Still, the energy of the ensemble is strong, and the cast demonstrates considerable skill in gymnastics, mime, pantomime, and charades. All of the actors pick up on the mission of Play Practice Theater Company, the producer of this show, which is committed to “explosive, physical, outlandish, experimental plays that use camp and humor….” Gregory demonstrates extraordinary agility and shines most when he literally throws his character around the stage. Justin Yorio embraces his character, Silvio, earnestly, reacting to what others say even when the spotlight is not on him. He accepts the character’s speech impediment as if it were his own, demonstrating that big laughs can be had at small, unexpected moments. Amanda Brown gives a broad interpretation to Clarice, giving new meaning to the words "temper tantrum." Smeraldina, Clarice’s tartish servant, is enthusiastically interpreted by Dara Seitzman, who wrings comedy from unpredictable gestures and expressions as well as from her scripted lines. She uses her voluptuous body in a mime that is more than entertaining. As Pantalone, Reuben Saunders delivers an understated performance for maximum effect.
Filling out the cast are long, lean Leigh Williams as the disguised Beatrice, who delivers her campy asides with finesse; Khris Lewin as the studly nitwit Florindo; Dennis Fox as the hot-air-balloon Dr. Lombardi; and John Pieza as the gun-wielding Brighella.
As mentioned, Golden directs with an eye toward the physical, and she elicits plenty from the cast. Her use of campy asides brings a humorous, contemporary air to this classic. She distinguishes the characters in clever ways, giving them effective traits and sight gags that are very funny. One in particular, the ensemble’s reaction every time the city of Turino is mentioned, adds particular rhythm and pacing. But others run out of gas long before the play reaches its end. The audience knows where the plot is headed, becomes too familiar with some of the routines, and arrives at the ending about 20 minutes before the cast does. This is easily fixed: cut, cuT, CUT. As a one-act play, this production might have thrown sparks.
The whimsical costumes by Jessica Gaffney add a colorful dimension to the production. Pantlaone’s red velvet suit with the four inch necktie made me smile every time he came on stage. Clarice and Silvio’s pastel pink and baby blue sateen outfits are perfect, and Florindo’s stuffed groin emphasizes where most of his grey cells are. Ryan Streber makes effective use of music primarily during scene changes. During one scene, he introduces music as a device, adding complexity and interest.
Owen Hughes designed lighting and sets. His sets are good, although inconsistent. A contemporary scrim, stretching the width of the small stage, is lovely but underused. Aesthetically unrelated are two plain trunks that make do for an elegant sitting room, an inn, a boudoir, and a courtyard, with nothing but the program to indicate where the action takes place. At the end of Act I, two cafe tables are set for the two masters. The tables are a welcome sight, simple and appealing, but again unrelated in style to the scrim or the trunks. All three styles work, but not together. In the same vein, the question should be asked: In a play without any props, why is real food used?