The Samuel H. Scripps mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is a wonderfully designed performance space: it is multiple theatres in one, so flexible one may not recognize it from one season to another. This production’s proscenium staging worked perfectly.
The Servant of Two Masters is silly, absurd, crass, ridiculous, pointless, and very, very funny. Downright hysterical in fact, based on commedia dell’arte, a theatrical structure that set standard character types into scenarios, the characters performing functions in standard plots that usually involved lovers, tricksters, and hungry servants. Characters were typically masked (and therefore recognizable in every town the troupe wandered into) except for the young lovers. There are always young lovers. The actors/characters often improvise the actual scenes, filled with slapstick, physical humor, and often violence. Midway through the 18th century, Carlo Goldoni put this scenario on paper.
Something like 270 years later, Christopher Bayes (director) and Steven Epps (lead actor, the hungry servant Truffaldino) have taken Carlo Goldoni’s play (as adapted by Constance Congdon) and discarded whatever words interfered with the laughs they were looking for, which probably change nightly. This is a living theatrical form, dependent on current events and the audience’s knowledge thereof. Like improv, but with a storyline providing more overall structure.
Considering the political humor running riot through the performance, I wish I could be transported back in time to hear what they all said before the election.
The evening started with Italian music your grandparents (maybe great grandparents) played and listened and danced to. No, not Dean Martin or Al Martino, earlier than that, back in the old country, the kind with mandolins and guitars and small accordions — like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FlNBuS7YgM. With music in our ears, magic appeared around the wonderful mainstage with a Roman arch creating the proscenium and strings of patio lights illuminating the theatre like starlight. It was delicioso.
Briefly, the servant of two masters has two masters because he has no money and he’s very hungry and his first master didn’t give so much as a centime for a hunk of bread. “Federigo” (spoiler alert: actually the late Federigo’s sister Beatrice in disguise for most of the play) won’t have money until “he” goes over the books of deals with Pantalone, father of the young woman to whom Federigo was affianced. And therein lies a tale. The second master turns out to be Florindo, for whom Federigo/Beatrice is searching, the man who killed Beatrice’s brother Federigo in a duel over her and who is her lover. No one recognizes anybody, of course. Poor Truffaldino, the incompetent servant, is still hungry halfway through the play!
Meanwhile another young couple’s wedding plans start out blessed but upon the return from the dead of Federigo, well, the first arrangement must take precedence, which infuriates the Dottore, father of Silvio, the beloved of Clarice. Love is frustrated, Beatrice reveals herself as a woman to Clarice so of course they’re now like sisters, while the true lover, Silvio, is jealous and behaves very foolishly. Oh, what will become of them all?
And Truffaldino is still hungry. When he finally has a chance to eat, it’s catch as catch can: food flies over the curtain to be caught and tossed by Truffaldino juggling with the two highly energetic waiters (Aidan Eastwood and Sam Urdang) while he’s also juggling the service of a meal to each of his masters.
The play is filled with music (all played by Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), including television advertising jingles from 30 years ago, snippets of show tunes, some pretty ditties for the ladies to sing (by Aaron Halva), pratfalls and slaps, a little swordplay, and an evening of ridiculous fun.
This company of players knows how to milk a laugh, go off and around the bend and then, like good jazz musicians, bring the story back on track and move along briskly. And they all sing wonderfully.
The star of the show is Truffaldino portrayed with high energy by the remarkable Steven Epps. He runs from one master to another, he leaps, he weeps, he receives beatings, he is a hoot and a half.
I didn’t even recognize one of my favorite actors from the Fiasco Theater Co., Andy Goteleuschen playing the Dottore, father of the whiny lover Silvio (Eugene Ma).
Pantalone, father of Clarice, sometimes friend and sometimes enemy of the Dottore, was well played by Allen Gilmore.
Orlando Pabotoy’s Florindo brought down the house when he came out brushing, or perhaps caressing, his wig.
Liam Craig’s Brighella the Chef is creepy but not as nasty as the Brighella character often is in Commedia.
Liz Wisan never fooled me, I knew she was a woman dressed as a man! But the audience always knows, it’s the characters onstage who aren’t playing with a full deck. As Beatrice in disguise as her dead brother Federico, Ms. Wisan did a fine job as alternately winsome and tough.
Adina Verson is very charming, sings beautifully and is hilarious as Clarice.
Finally, Emily Young is sweet, funny and poignant as Smeraldina, the typical lady's maid conspiring with her mistress only to fall for the not in the slightest bit wily Truffaldino. She also had a fine time speaking as a modern feminist standing up for women’s rights against the vulgarians coming into power.
My feeling about nine out of ten of the shows I see is that they run a little longer than they need to — and this very, very funny show was not an exception. It could lose 10, 15 minutes. Just not the intermission, which is needed for the audience to catch their breaths after over an hour of laughing as well as for the bathroom break implied by Truffaldino. I suspect which 10 minutes is arguable — something I felt lasted too long, such as Pantalone’s leg business, probably did not appear so to others.
There’s no down time in The Servant of Two Masters, it’s just chock a block non-stop, full of laughter and song. If you’re sensitive to raunchy innuendoes, verbal or physical, you might be offended once or twice, but really, in today’s world, aren’t we offended by someone or something multiple times a day? Grin and bear it for the sake of the rest of the life-giving oxygen provided by all the laughter.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read TFANA’s always entertaining program with quotes about the playwrights, the play, the times. Or perhaps watch the 1952 film, Scaramouche!