The Servant to Two Masters
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Berg
February 10, 2010
Commedia dell'arte and clown offer many similar pleasures while playing their own particular tricks. As a sometime practitioner and appreciator of both, I was drawn to Long Island City to see what the Secret Theatre was up to in using clown to interpret Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte play The Servant to Two Masters. I'm happy to report this joyful production is a free-wheeling, funny commedia/clown hybrid.
Commedia and clown are related in many ways. Both use broad characterizations and physical comedy including slapstick and tumbling, both employ virtuosic skills such as juggling, acrobatics, magic, and dance, and both challenge or break conventions. The Secret Theatre's The Servant to two Masters appealingly engages in many of these shared techniques of commedia and clown.
There are also differences between the two. Unlike clown, it's widely accepted that commedia uses stock scenarios and characters such as Arlecchino, Pantalone, and Dottore. Goldoni's script provides many of the scenarios and the director and cast of this production rightfully add their own absurd variations. The characters here are also the recognizable commedia types, though with their own clownish twists.
While the traditional commedia masks aren't always practiced today, they look quite different and function slightly differently from the clown mask of the red nose worn in this production. I questioned whether the clown noses are necessary here but if they helped get the ensemble to these exuberantly hammy performances then they serve the best function of the commedia masks after all.
The Servant to two Masters tells the convoluted tale of Truffaldino (as Goldoni named the Arlecchino character) who, looking to double his pay and meals, secretly moonlights for two masters. The masters are also lovers searching for each other. And there are betrothed lovers, family feuds, fed-up fathers, murdered brothers, disguises, mixed-up letters, and purloined portraits. It's not important that one keeps all the intrigues in order. More importantly they supply the skilled and fun-loving company just enough moment-to-moment tension for comic shenanigans. The Secret Theatre's production, in the tradition of great commedia troupes, happily uses the plot as their playground and then gleefully breaks out of it in their own mischievous ways.
Alberto Bonilla's briskly paced direction lets his players stretch, poke, and punch the story with impunity. His pre-school-like set of colorful hand-printed walls, blackboards, boxes, and mats underscores his idea of childlike clowns and gives his performers a romper room that's functionally fun and open for antics.
The ensemble's complicit playfulness makes the most of the script while freely improvising and interacting with the audience in inventive bits of participation. The rambunctious Richard McDonald comically endears himself to the audience as the resourcefully dim-witted Truffaldino. Alexander Stine is grandly ridiculous as the blustery and abused Pantalone. Randy Warshaw is a favorite with his sublime penchant for commedia's meta-theatrical winks. And I particularly like Alex Mahgoub's and Nalini Sharma's funny modern takes on the traditional zanni servants that seem to give a nod to the Secret Theatre's location on the 7 subway line (sometimes called the International Express).
Hop the train to Long Island City at the speed of fun if you want a good time at the theatre. If you have preconceptions of commedia or clown go to this show just to set those ideas free. Using both forms and their own playful exuberance, the director and cast realize every comic potential of Goldoni's script and then bring some of their own. The Secret Theatre's The Servant to two Masters succeeds in the best of both commedia dell'arte's and clown's shared tradition of "making 'em laugh."