Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Servant of Two Masters
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Cymbeline


Andrew Carlson
Photo by Benjamin Boucvalt
Great River Shakespeare Festival is now in the throes of their sixteenth season in Winona, once again staging productions that are beautiful to behold, thoughtfully conceived, and acted with impeccable precision. Their mainstage custom is to stage one terribly serious and one lighter-weight offering from the Shakespeare folios along with a play by another playwright that complements the season. This year, that offering is Carlo Goldoni's rib-tickler, The Servant of Two Masters. Goldoni's work has been adapted and directed by Beth Gardiner, who helmed a wonderfully frisky Midsummer Night's Dream at last year's festival.

In her Servant of Two Masters, Gardiner draws heavily upon the Italian comic style in which Goldoni wrote the piece, known as commedia dell'arte. That style was in common use in Italian theater as far back as two hundred years before Goldoni himself coined the phrase, uttered by a character in his 1750 play The Comic Theater, written after his first production of The Servant of Two Masters in 1746, but three years before he offered a revised version, in 1753, which is the one in common usage today. Gardiner makes heavy use of the stock comic characters that are the hallmark of commedia dell'arte, especially the central title character, Truffaldino, based on the Italian archetype Arlecchino (or Harlequin, in English), a zany comic servant who is lighthearted but clever, physically agile, and who often thwarts the plans of his master—or in the play at hand, his two masters.

The play is set in Venice and begins with the merchant Pantalone (another of those stock characters, the well-to-do merchant concerned with social status and ego, but easily deceived) celebrating the engagement of his daughter Clarice to her young suitor Silvio, son of Doctor Lombardi. The young lovers are also stock characters, enthusiastically in love and a bit naive. The engagement was made possible by the fact that the man to whom Pantalone had betrothed Clarice, Federigo Rasponi of Turin, was recently killed, freeing Clarice to pursue her heart's desire.

All is brought to a halt when the servant Truffaldino appears, requesting permission for his master Federigo Rasponi to enter Pantalone's home, creating the illusion that Federigo still lives. In fact, it is not Federigo but his sister Beatrice Rasponi, disguised as her late brother. She is after the dowry that was to be paid for his marriage to Clarice, then plans to escape with the ill-gotten wealth and marry Florindo, her true love. It was Florindo who had killed Federigo, who was trying to keep him from marrying Beatrice. Pantalone calls off the wedding of Clarice and Silvio to honor the betrothal he had earlier brokered, leaving the two young lovers in despair. Beatrice retires to an inn, leaving Truffaldino, who cares more about affairs of the stomach than of the heart, for he has an insatiable appetite.

Another man approaches the inn and, spying Truffaldino standing alone, offers him employment as his servant. With the chance to double his meal ticket, Truffaldino accepts the offer, thus becoming a servant to two masters. Adding to the mayhem, Truffaldino's second master is none other than Florindo, who has fled Turin after killing Federigo, unaware that his own beloved Beatrice is under the same roof, as Truffaldino uses all his wit to keep his two masters apart. The servant's crafty and hilarious efforts to conceal his duplicity reach a frenzied peak when he must serve a lavish dinner to both masters at the same time, culminating in a hysterical juggling act both figuratively and literally.

In her adaptation, Gardiner inserts pop culture references, ranging from Harry Potter to The Princess Bride, which fit well within the framework of this play being a lark. She melds the character Smeraldina, a serving girl who becomes a love interest for Truffaldino in Goldoni's original, into the character of Brighella the innkeeper, so that ever-famished Truffaldino is comically smitten by Brighella's incredible artistry in the kitchen rather than the allure of a young coquettish maid. Gardiner jettisons the part of Silvio's father, the Doctor, completely, or almost so. It becomes a merry opportunity for an audience member to join the cast, with specific instructions as to when to speak and what to say. Gardiner keeps everything moving at slapdash pace, barely allowing time for laughter from one scene to subside before the next set of comic hijinks rolls in.

Silas Sellnow is a splendid Truffaldino. Sellnow is a young actor appearing for his sixth consecutive season at Great River Shakespeare Festival, appearing on Twin Cities stages during the rest of the year. He has grown into a versatile performer who easily commands the stage with lithe physicality, bright line delivery, boyish good looks, and a mastery of all things goofy. He makes splendid use of the insertion of food items in place of curses, crying out such phrases as "Fish sticks!" and "Holy guacamole" with aplomb, and his servile courtesy is endlessly endearing.

As Florindo, Andrew Carlson is hilarious, appearing with a Fabio-like cascade of hair that he tosses about with manly abandon, adroitly blending physical comedy, faux masculinity, and a dim wit throughout his performance. When he realizes a portrait mistakenly given to him is of himself, Carlson exclaims "Why, that picture is of me! I'd know it anywhere!" without betraying the doltish mind that would utter those words. Leah Gabriel is striking as the determined Beatrice, who has taken it upon herself to make it possible for her and Florindo to live happily together. Gabriel handles well the task of performing as a woman disguised as a man in a disguise keen enough to fool the others on stage, but to be transparent to the audience.

Christopher Gerson, a festival veteran who might himself have been a triumphant Truffaldino ten years ago, brings out the humor in Pantalone's fustiness. Gracie Belt and Daniel Stewart are adorably in love as Clarice and Silvio, respectively, each a bit whimpering and light in the noggin, but wholly sincere. As the innkeeper Brighella, Victoria Nassif makes a striking impression, being the most astute among the characters, while also bringing sass and sexiness to her portrayal.

The setting is a simple but functional affair, with drapes hung on curtain rings from an overhead catwalk pushed to one side to indicate Pantaloon's home, another to become Brighella's inn. Two rows of seats for audience members to sit on stage face the players from the left and right, creating a thrust-stage effect that suits the frequent movement among characters.

The costumes, designed by Rebecca Bernstein, are a riotous mix of contemporary street clothes and colorfully wrought 17th century robes, tunics, hats and such, using bold colors to mark each of the plot's stock characters, in particular Clarice's pink dress in frilly tiers and Pantaloon's bright red suit. The sound and lighting work to enhance the production, and props supervisor Ivy Thomas has done splendid job, including a monumental chocolate cake that had me drooling, along with Truffaldino.

The production, it must be said, starts out bumpily with a musical introduction to the Venetian setting that is unnecessary, not very tuneful, and unfortunately reprised at the top of act two. Once this tedious business is past, the well-crafted merriment and mirth begins, capturing our attention with its bright wit, clever plotting, and endearingly simple characters. The staging, the narrative, the design, and the performances all conspire to deliver waves of entertainment, so that when the happy ending comes, as we have full confidence it will, we find ourselves elevated several layers higher from the ground than when it all began, held aloft by the good-hearted funny business dished up by this Servant of Two Masters.

The Servant of Two Masters, through August 4, 2019, at Great River Shakespeare Festival, Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $49.00; Students: $10.00 - $15.00. Discount Pass for all three mainstage shows area available. For schedule of performances and other event, and for tickets, call 507-474-7900 or go to GRSF.org.

Playwright: Carlo Goldoni; Adapted and Directed by Beth Gardiner; Assistant Director: Erica Vannon; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Avery Reagan; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Assistant Costume Designer: Kayli Warner; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Props Supervisor: Ivy Thomas; Composer: Silas Sellnow; Backdrop Design: Margaret Wenk-Kuchlbauer; Fight Choreographer: Benjamin Boucvalt; Intimacy Director: Tom Ringberg; Assistant Intimacy Director: Gaby Labotka; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Kimberly Carolus; Assistant Stage Manager: Olivia Pederson.

Cast: Gracie Belt (Clarice), Andrew Carlson (Florindo), Leah Gabriel (Beatrice), Christopher Gerson (Pantalone), Victoria Nassif (Brighella), Silas Sellnow (Truffaldino), Daniel Stewart (Silvio).


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