Yale Repertory Theatre's production of The Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni, adapted by Constance Congdon, from a translation by Christina Sibul, directed by Christopher Bayes, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Through October 20th.
Yale? Yale? We're hauling the Rep from Yale out here to do plays? Fine. Insert the traditional mope about using local talent (of which there is SOME representation) at this point of the review and we'll just move on.
The Servant of Two Masters is a play from the smack-middle of the 18th Century, adapted by Constance Congdon, who previously had done the Imaginary Invalid a few seasons back. And the play itself pulls from the commedia dell'arte which started in 1500s, which was more improvisational and lusty. And while there is improv rolling through this production, it is really more of a localizing as opposed to modernizing the classic - there are bits that refer to localities and current politics and using "Microsoft" as a running gag. The self-commentary feels like Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo are providing a second audio track. The result feels like a shadow of a shadow, its farce and lechery, while definitely present, boiled out just a bit for the provincials.
Here is Truffaldino (a free-associating Steven Epp), who is a fool who picks up two masters thinking it would involve getting two meals, and not realizing it involved twice as much work and twice as much intrigue to mess up. He is the servant of Beatrice (a stunning Liz Wisan) , who is travelling in the disguise of her late brother, which Truffaldino does not realize (he is apparently a new hire). Beatrice is seeking to reunite with her lover Florindo (a hilariously vain Jesse J. Perez), who killed Beatrice's brother (the matter that Beatice's loyalty is to Florindo as opposed to her brother is not questioned, though made more clear if you check out the wiki, but you really don't need to). Truffaldino becomes Floridino's servant as well, which leads to whackiness and whacking with the slap-stick when anyone else leaves messages for Truffaldino's master and he cannot parse which one he supposed to give it to.
Further, Beatrice's late brother was engaged to be married to Clarice (a Carol Burnettish Adina Verson), who is the daughter of Beatrice's late brother's business partner Pantalone (a rubber-jointed Allen Gilmore). In the wake of Beatrice's brother's death, Clarice is now set to marry Silvio (the baby-faced Eugene Ma), and the reappearance of the supposedly dead man upsets their plans, along with the plans of Floridino, who is afraid he did not kill Beatrice's brother after all. Oh, yeah, and Beatrice and Floridino are staying at the same inn, run by Brighella (Liam Craig), and Truffaldino has to keep them appart.
Confused? Well, many of the actors are wearing half-masks, because they are stock characters. Pantalone is an old man, equal parts miser and harsh but loving father. Truffaldino is in motley and wears a fool's mask. Brigella and Il Dottore (Allen Gali) are masked as well, and if you were your typical 16th century Italian, you would recognize them as easily as a cheesehead would target a Packers fan. Again, knowledge of where these guys are coming from doesn't hurt, particularly as their actions often come from their assigned roles as opposed to the evolution of the plot.
Oddly, the piece that sets the scene - two workers talking in mock-Italian about the old theater, that creates a sense of wonder that the rest of the play only aspires to at the very end. The workers find an old costume chest, and open it, and fireflies come out, dancing the darkness and joining with the stars to create a magical scene. Only at the end, when both sets of lovers are united (yeah, spoilers), so we get back to that bit of stagecraft and the sense of wonder that theater can present.
So the improv isn't fully improv and the text is localized as opposed to being modernized. The simple fact with such a play is that your enjoyment is connected to the sense of fun the actors are playing with it. They wander back and forth from recognizing they are in a play and dealing with the play's reality - the fourth wall isn't so much a wall as it is a window. Epp has to sell a number of goals for Truffaldino - desire to get fed, passion for Clarice's maid (Julie Briskman, previously in The Beard of Avon), and the need to avoid discovery, so he often comes off as patchwork as his outfit. Liz Wisan acquits nicely in the breeches role, though a lot of her moves consist of exasperation at her servant. And Allen Gilmore steals the bulk of his scenes with an athleticism that belies his role as both old man and stern father.
But you know, just roll with it. It works out. It is a play that is entirely driven by the performance level of its actors. If they have fun, you have fun, and for this Sunday matinee performance, they looked like they were having fun.
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