Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters on Outdoor Stage
Until the advent of Servant, commedia was essentially improvisation featuring actors who spent their careers portraying the same stock characters in improvised situations. Apparently, audiences were tiring of the anarchic traditional format when Servant first appeared. Thus, what was first written and performed as a sparsely written shell providing situations for improvisation, was revised into the more fully written play which has survived to become a classic. However, actors and directors still face the formidable task of improvising precise, complex physical comedy, developing strong commedia comic personas and performances, and maintaining a frantic pace in order to maximize the hilarity that can be extracted from the play.
The staple characters are here. In Venice, the foolish fathers, the Latin-spouting Doctor Lombardi (Il Dottore) and lecherous Pantalone have just arranged the engagement of the former's son and the latter's daughter, the foolish young lovers Silvio and Clarice. Clarice had been engaged to Federico of Turin before he was killed in a duel. However, no sooner has the bargain been struck when Beatrice, disguised as her deceased brother, arrives at Pantalone's house claiming Clarice as his bride. Beatrice has come to find her beloved Florindo who fled Turin after killing her brother, Federico. Beatrice is impersonating her late brother in order to obtain the dowry which had been promised to him by Pantalone. She needs the money to help Florindo.
But none of the above is what is central here. The center ring is reserved for the Arlecchino or Harlequin. That is, the acrobatic comic servant (zanni) who is foolish, deceitful, lustful, gluttonous, and whose behavior mangles the plans of his master. Goldoni's variation on this colorfully costumed (and here unmasked) zanni is Truffaldino. Here, Truffaldino takes the position of servant to Federico, whom he does not know is actually Beatrice. Motivated by greed, he then hires on to be Florindo's servant. Alas, a servant cannot serve two masters, and the central mischief is afoot.
The highlight of the production is the famous scene in which Truffaldino is forced to serve both his masters their dinners (while he is simultaneously feeding himself) at the Inn where, unbeknownst to either, both his Masters are staying. Under the direction of Jason King Jones and with the help of the innkeeper and two waiters, Alex Morf adroitly and hilariously performs an extended comic ballet replete with dialogue and Italian melodies. Most delightful among the latter is the Neapolitan "Maria Mari," popularly known by the first words of its refrain "Oi Marie, Oi Marie."
However, for The Servant of Two Masters to succeed, we need more in the way of pace and physical comedy than is provided here. A number of comic plot complications have been jettisoned in this new translation by Bonnie J. Monte. Director Jason King Jones seems to have passed up too many opportunities for comic staging. Although the Shakespeare Theatre Outdoor Stage productions are designed to provide outdoor family entertainment for a summer night (and have done so extraordinarily well for the past several seasons), the overly timid, downplaying of its bawdy humor robs Servant of much of its juice.
Alex Morf is an amiable Truffaldino with whom to spend a summer evening. However, his likeable Arlecchino left me thinking of the exponential difference between seeing a good, hardworking young actor in the role and seeing a master comic actor such as Nathan Lane perform it (sadly, herein lies the rub).
Most of the cast lends able support. Colin McPhillamy has a fine comic sensibility as Il Dottore. Particularly amusing is his archly pseudo-intellectual channeling of John Houseman's reading of Professor Kingsfield in Paper Chase. William Metzo nicely captures the misanthropy of his antagonist Pantalone. Amanda Duffy displays a deft comic touch as Smeraldina, the maid who is the object of Truffaldino's lust. Jeffrey M. Bender plays the innkeeper Brighella as a straight man without any comic possibilities.
Kevin Judge's excellent unit set depicting Venetian architecture in shades of tan and brown has the stylized, sharp-edged look of buildings in a pop-up picture book. Its two open arches are cleverly closed with door panels which serve as the entrance to the kitchen when the setting switches to the inn. Andrew Hungerford provides the sharp outdoor lighting.
The Servant of Two Masters continues performances (Tuesday-Sunday 8:15 pm - Sun., July 4 only 7:15 pm) through August 1, 2010 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's Outdoor Stage at the Greek Theatre, 2 Convent Road (at Convent Station), Morris Township, NJ (on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth). Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni; Translated by Bonnie J. Monte; Adapted by Bonnie J. Monte with Jason King Jones; directed by Jason King Jones