Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
What a difference a director makes! Last summer Shakespeare & Company produced this same modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy The Servant of Two Masters by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi under Dan McCleary’s direction and I hailed it as the funniest show of the summer. Today the same script, under the direction of Mariah Sanford-White at Hubbard Hall, was decidedly leaden and at times even painfully unfunny.
Certainly this production is not up to the usual standards of the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, and almost feels like TCHH Lite. Six out of the 16 actors on stage are under 20, and while these young people are talented and hard working, they are also teenagers, a fact that is only made more obvious when they share the stage with the likes of experienced professionals like Benjie White, Kim Johnson-Turner, Tony Pallone, and Tom Mattern.
Sanford-White has staged the play as a proscenium piece – highly unusual at Hubbard Hall – and left vast acres of empty floor space between the audience and the playing area. The framing device of having the actors enter as, well, actors in a state of unrehearsed disarray may be in the script, but it only adds distance between the audience and the characters we are supposed to be engaged by. Apparently this device is in the script, and McCleary’s production had one too, but it was very, very different.
Brian Foley is listed as the Lazzi Choreographer. According to Wayne S. Turney’s theatre history Web site, Lazzi is the commedia dell’arte term for “stage tricks designed to evoke laughter which, often as not, are altogether extraneous to the plot.” We are all familiar with modern-day lazzi – the Three Stooges with their eye-poking, nose-twisting and trademark “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” are prime examples. It doesn’t matter which Stooges film or short you are watching, you are guaranteed a heavy dose of their stock physical comic bits. But Sanford-White and her team seem to have focused on the “extraneous to the plot” part to the detriment of the “designed to evoke laughter” requirement. Particularly in the first Act the plot was constantly interrupted by business, none of which was a funny as intended. Also, there is a lot of very stylized stage posturing which might be funny in smaller doses, and traditional commedia dell’arte masks are worn by some characters, and not by others. Frankly, the stylized poses go much better with the masks than without, which makes sense since they were developed in tandem.
Speaking of the plot, there is a fairly complex and unimportant one, this being farce. Truffaldino (Ben Scurria), a servant concerned mostly with where his next meal is coming from, indentures himself to two masters – a man claiming to be Federico Rasponi (Kathleen Carey) and Florindo (Mike Maloney) – in the hopes of getting two sets of meals every day and twice the pay – if only he can keep his two employers from finding out that he is two-timing them. What Truffaldino doesn’t know is that Federico Rasponi is dead and that the person he is serving is Federico’s sister, Beatrice, in disguise. When he was alive, Federico was betrothed to Clarice (Laura Stevenson), daughter of Pantalone (Tony Pallone), but now that he is presumed dead, she has gone ahead and become engaged to her true love Silvio (Peter Donohue), son of Dr. Lombardi (Tom Mattern). Needless to say the two young lovers and their fathers are less than pleased when Beatrice arrives in Venice pretending to be Federico.
Aiding and abetting the mayhem are Clarice’s maid, Smeraldina (Kim Johnson-Turner), who Truffaldino secretly loves; and Brighella (Benjie White), the local innkeeper, who has known Beatrice and her brother from childhood and quickly sees through her disguise.
One of the comic inventions that works quite well here are the antics of the clowns – Rebecca Carson, Liz Caspari, and Beth Pietrangelo – who play everything from pieces of furniture to the waitstaff at Brighella’s inn. Caspari, the only adult of the three, is a very funny little person, but Carson and Pietrangelo both did a nice job of imbuing each minor role with personality.
But Anatasia Satterthwaite as the stage manager, Abby Imhof as the prompter, Sequana Skye as a wealthy patron, and Henry Kelly as the patron’s son who is forced to play Floggolozzo the Porter just clutter up the place and frequently either slow down the action or bring it to a screeching halt just when you had hopes that a good head of comic steam was being built up. Maybe they are in the script, but I didn’t see hide nor hair of those characters and their business last summer at Shakespeare & Company and I hope I don’t see them again in any future productions of this adaptation.
Scurria might have been a good Truffaldino in a better production. He certainly exerted a lot of energy here, which became painful and tiring to watch (and undoubtedly for him to play) as it became more and more apparent that the whole show was tanking.
White, Johnson-Turner, Pallone and Mattern are all seasoned players who do nicely with their roles. I enjoyed seeing the old etchings of commedia characters brought to life by the gentlemen with their traditional masks, robes, and poses. At one point Johnson-Turner gives the audience a pop quiz on the story line so far – a cute idea but one which only slows the pace – and she asks who the most appealing female character in the production is, with broad hints that it is her. Luckily for all concerned, it IS her!
It is certainly not Carey’s fierce and laugh-smothering performance as Beatrice. Carey seems to have confused masculinity with humorlessness, or that may just be her natural state. The other two roles in which I have seen her – the title role in Peter Pan and the lead in Boy Gets Girl – did not call for much humor. If she were livelier I think Maloney’s foolishly earnest portrayal of Florindo would have been much more entertaining.
The very young Stevenson and Donohue (they are a junior and sophomore respectively at Hoosick Falls Central School) play the young lovers. It is a cute idea and I have to say that they both acquit themselves well, but it is like seeing half of a high school production of The Servant of Two Masters and half of an adult/community theatre production, which is a little disconcerting.
Karen Koziol gets credit for the set and costume design. I have already mentioned that the action was staged too far away from the audience, and the three sets of narrow, rickety steps leading down from the stage to the floor looked dangerous, but I did like the colorful harlequin pattern painted on the floor that echoed Scurria’s costume. I liked the back drop with its Velcro-one set pieces and signs, and I liked most of the costumes very, very much. They were witty and effective. I loved how Stevenson’s ensemble matched the shocking pink of her closely cropped hair and the aforementioned traditional commedia robes for the older men. But the real show stoppers were the costumes Carson, Caspari, and Pietrangelo wore as they played Doric (or where they Ionic?) columns, a grandfather clock, a hassock, and other normally inanimate objects.
I drove up to Hubbard Hall through remarkably beautiful Washington County, NY, on a spectacular late summer day. I really felt as if I was coming home after a long, hot summer of reviewing expensively produced shows catering to the tourist trade. If I wanted to review New York City theatre I would live in New York City. There is something magical about even a less-than-perfect TCHH production because it is presented by the people for the people in a unique and beautiful setting. I am looking forward to their regular season, beginning with The Elephant Man in November. I can’t think of a more evocative Victorian setting for that play than Hubbard Hall.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of The Servant of Two Masters runs through August 26 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Individual tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. TCHH also offers a group sales rate of $10 per ticket for blocks of 10+ tickets reserved in advance by non-profit organizations. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007