Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2006
I’ll eat my hat if Dan McCleary’s side-splitting production of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters isn’t the best comedy of this summer season. It is funny and fresh, performed with vigor by a top-notch cast. And admission is free! How could it get any better? Well, they could offer an opportunity to see the whole show in one sitting (with an intermission, of course).
Yes, the bad news is that The Servant of Two Masters is being presented in two parts. If you want to see all of it (and you will) the best you can do is attend the 1:15 and 6:15 pm performances on a Saturday, finding some entertaining way to while away the four hours between the shows.
Now, there are worse things than spending a Saturday afternoon in central Berkshire County. I personally took in the Gilded Age exhibit at Arrowhead, did a little shopping, and then returned to the beautiful grounds of Shakespeare & Company with iced tea, a sandwich, and a good book. If I had been really organized, I could have sprinted across the street to Ventfort Hall and caught the 4 p.m. performance of Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age but since I had already seen three and a half shows in one week the idea of adding a fifth in the middle of the fourth was a little mind boggling.
But a lot of what I did during by four hour break was wonder what was going to happen next! How would Truffaldino (Michael Burnet) get himself out of the inexorable pickle of serving two masters – Beatrice Rasponi (Catherine Taylor-Williams), disguised as her late twin brother Federico, and Florindo (David Joseph), Beatrice’s beloved and Federico’s murderer - at the same time without getting caught? And the fact that they are both staying at Brighella’s (Karen Lee) inn and have identical trunks doesn't make the project any easier. But two salaries and six meals a day instead of three are a powerful draw for this little man who lusts after food, money, and the fair Smeraldina (Julie Webster), maid servant to the lovely Clarice (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan), who was betrothed to Federico before he died, although she is really in love with Silvio (Grant Haywood) to whom she became engaged on Federico’s death, only now it looks like he’s alive again… Clarice’s father Pantalone (Jeffrey Kent) wants her to keep her word to Federico (not knowing that Federico is actually Beatrice in drag) while Silvio’s father Doctor Lombardi (Sam Reiff-Pasarew) would prefer she keep her troth to his son. In the meantime neither Beatrice nor Florindo knows that the other is in Venice, er, Lenox, nor that Truffaldino is secretly servant to them both. Oy!
The cast is uniformly excellent. I tried to name my favorite actors or lines, but the list just went on and on and on. Besides, my favorite bits might be different from yours. But I did like Reiff-Pasarew when he was being the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in a vividly floral sheet. And I loved how Burnet made his sad squashed hat seemingly levitate from one hand to the next. And Taylor-Williams makes such a handsome man…pardon me, I am giving you that list after all.
The Servant of Two Masters is classic Commedia dell’Arte, a popular form of masked theatre developed over many centuries and popular in Italy during Goldoni’s life time (1707-1793). Shakespeare would certainly have seen traveling troupes of Commedia players. Performances were largely improvised, using the well known mask characters - such as Truffaldino (also known as Harlequin or Arrlecchino), Pantalone, the Doctor, Brighella, and Smeraldina – and only the barest of plot outlines. Goldoni’s big innovation was actually creating set scripts from the actors’ improvisations, and eventually writing original scripts of his own. Performers wore actual masks until Goldoni’s day, because the topical humor on social or political issues of the day incorporated into the shows put the actors in actual physical danger. The masks preserved their anonymity, but they also, as Goldoni noted, prevented the actors from conveying much in the way of emotion.
McCleary and company are using relatively new translation and adaption, created by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi for the Milwaukee Repertory Company. And they have added their own topical humor, much of it specific to central Berkshire County. The Rose Footprint Theatre has a built-in set with three entrances and an upper level from which things can be conveniently hurled. McCleary’s innovation here is the addition of a “moat” containing, we are continually warned, “Live Water!” One good reason to see the first part of the show is to watch Burnet fill the moat from high atop a step-ladder before the show begins.
The other good reason to see the first part, if you must choose and see only one, is it see the prologue wherein the company announces that they have arrived to perform “Hamlet” – all five and a half hours of it – only to discover that it is being performed up the hill at the Founders’ Theatre and that everyone in the audience has tickets promising them a performance of The Servant of Two Masters. What to do? Improvise! But not until several of the actors have had hilariously self-absorbed public meltdowns.
Jeff Newman and Jacquelyn Leanna Anderson act as Master and Deputy Master of the Revels for both parts of the show. Anderson makes extremely loud announcements of several important matters, in case you didn’t hear Newman the first time. They greet audience members as they arrive, prying tidbits of personal information from them that are then plopped into the show.
Since no one is wearing a mask, and since modern audiences aren’t familiar with the Commedia characters, McCleary has decided to telegraph information about the players by costuming them as recognizable types from vaudeville and the silent movie era, with handsome outfits designed by Susan Slack. Hence Truffaldino looks like Buster Keaton, Florindo is a handsome Canadian Mountie, and the Doctor resembles Snidely Whiplash. Clarice is all in frilly white, and Smeraldina sports the briefest of French Maid costumes. The concept works as well as the masks did in days gone by, you instantly understand who’s who.
During my interval hours I was chatting with someone who asked me if The Servant of Two Masters was slapstick comedy. I replied that the slapstick had already made its appearance, which confused this person who did not know that there was an actual object called a slapstick. There is and if you want to see one it makes an even more dramatic appearance in part two.
There is a lot of water in play here. If you want to get wet, see part two. And if you don’t want to get wet, don’t sit down front in either part. You’ll get wet at the end of part two anyway, but a lot less wet if you sit in back. I sat in back and found the cool shower dispensed by Newman’s Super Soaker to be highly refreshing, but light enough to prevent me from looking like a contestant in a wet t-shirt contest.
If you are only able to see one part of the show I would probably recommend seeing part two, since there is a brief, and very funny, high speed recap of part one at the start, whereas part one ends rather abruptly and leaves you wanting more. McCleary has wisely repeated in its entirety the very funny Waiter Scene in both parts, so you won’t miss that bit.
I feel that I have somehow failed to capture the wild and wacky spirit of this show. It is very broad and silly and very, very funny. And it’s free! (Did I mention that it’s free? But you do need to make reservations.) You can take the whole family, the whole neighborhood even! This is thanks to the very generous support by Teddi and Fran Laurin, who underwrite all of Shakespeare & Company’s free Bankside events, but your help is needed to keep this series going. The actors pass the hat at the end of both parts, and audience members are urged to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with their words of support for continued free programming. (I don’t need to tell loyal GailSez.com readers that live theatre ALWAYS needs our support in any way we can give it.)
The Servant of Two Masters runs in repertory through August 26 on the 200-seat, tented outdoor Rose Footprint Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. Each half runs about 70 minutes without an intermission. You can see Part One on Wednesdays and Part Two on Fridays, or see both parts on Saturdays. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006