Commedia dell'arte isn't dead, it's just in a coma. But it, like farce, needs plenty of care and thought in order to be roused from its slumber long enough to entertain a modern audience. With the Play Practice Theater Company's production of Servant of Two Masters, commedia and farce aren't comatose, just narcoleptic.
Yes, consistency is the most formidable enemy of this mounting of the show, which plays through next weekend at PS 122 Downstairs. Adapted and directed by Holly Golden as a collegiate Technicolor romp, this fast-paced production will go to any lengths for a laugh at any time. Its openness and its extensively genial nature are its greatest strengths, but also its greatest weaknesses: Sometimes it's important to know when to hold back, too.
That's not something that ever really happens during the play: We're immediately introduced to the starving traveler Truffaldino (Karl Gregory), who takes up as a valet to two different people in hopes of feeding his demanding and long-suffering stomach. The first is a woman named Beatrice (Leigh Williams), who's posing as her recently deceased brother in order to locate her missing lover; the second is Florindo (Khris Lewin), who's searching for his own now-missing betrothed.
Their paths cross in Venice, where Beatrice travels to meet with her brother's fiancée, Clarice (Amanda Brown), who is daughter to the older and slightly befuddled Pantalone (Reuben Saunders). The only problem is that Pantalone has already re-promised Clarice to Silvio (Justin Yorio), the baby-talking son of a prominent learned man, Dr. Lombardi (Dennis Fox). However will all these plot threads be untangled? The answer won't be revealed here.
Nor does it need to be; this type of thing was ancient even when Carlo Goldoni first cobbled together this script from commedia improvisation sometime in the 1750s. And, as far as it goes, the play remains strong: If television sitcoms have rendered overly familiar most of the plot twists about mistaken identities and misunderstandings, it doesn't matter much. People haven't been attending shows like this for their plots for hundreds of years; they want to see what new things are done with the clichés and stock characters they already know and love.
And that's where this production proves problematic. It's not the highly contemporary adaptation of Goldoni's original that saps the show of so much of its comic urgency, but the particular type of performance given by practically every actor. No one expects subtlety from a play like this, but one does have the right to expect humanity; the mugging, highly affected voices, violent gasping, and untethered winking to the audience are so overblown as to wear out their welcome almost immediately. All this doesn't necessarily equal good comedy, and by the end of the bloated first act (the whole show runs almost two and a half hours), it barely equals watchability.
One performer, however, makes it work: Dara Seitzman, who's playing Clarice's sexpot maid Smeraldina. She prowls around with a stripper's gait, and accents most of her lines with bumps, grinds, or rolls of her ample shoulders. Her voice, a smoky alto, imbues even the most innocent words with flaming double entendres. Seitzman not only turns up the heat in her otherwise chilly surroundings, but she provokes laughter by her very audacity; perhaps unwittingly, she's tapped into a centuries-old tradition and made the broad she plays broad in all the right ways.
The lithe and sinewy Gregory nails the Harlequin's attitude for Truffaldino, but is never as comfortable in his spoken scenes (of which there are many) as he is when performing physical comedy. Most of the others mug or overplay even by commedia dell'arte standards, with the notable exception of John Pieza as the innkeeper Brighella; he's content to rest on the laurels of his menacing look and voice and contributes considerably less character-wise.
That's almost an improvement, though - in comedy, as in many areas of the theatre, less is more, and Pieza's jokes (such as they are) land often enough. The other members of the rampaging comic grotesquerie are outmatched by their costumes, which have been designed by Jessica Gaffney. She has updated traditional looks with vibrant reds, piercing blues, and blinding yellows, defining the gaudy, unpredictable natures of the characters down to their very socks. And, in fact, those socks are often zany enough to seem like characters themselves.
Gaffney managed to make the expected fresh again. For the rest of Servant of Two Masters to work as well, its creative team and cast would need to find an effective way to do the same.
Play Practice Theater Company