The Servant Of Two Masters at the Guthrie Theater

December 7, 2012
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The Ensemble in The Servant Of Two Masters. Photo by Richard Termine.

The Servant Of Two Masters (at the Guthrie, through January 20).  First some mechanicals come out in semi-darkness, speaking pidgin Italian.  They kill the lights and we have an exquisite firefly effect: twinkling lights, hundreds of them, seeming to float o’er the McGuire stage (three cheers for lighter Chuan-Chi Chan).  Then the lights shoot up and we get an ebullient song.  All very nice.

Then the actors begin to act, and the play starts with a vengeance.  Holy moley  these artists are terrific.  Everyone is a marvel: the roly-poly Il Dottore (Don Darryl Rivera) with the oversized belly and the Rudolph the Reindeer nose (major praise for costumologist Valérie Thérèse Bart); the angular agèd yet energized Allen Gilmore as Pantalone; the mesmerizingly shrill and yet, somehow, utterly sweet Adina Verson as the feckless Clarice; and (my personal fave) Liz Wisan as Clarice’s not particularly faithful servant with her barely controlled and mysteriously sexy hysteria.  Then, of course, there are the two masters, Florindo (the lithe and fluid Jesse J. Perez, who makes Dick Shawn appear moody and pensive), beloved of Beatrice, played by the gorgeously talented Sarah Agnew, pretending to be a man (she didn’t fool me.  Ha).

Here’s what makes this cast so good: despite the over-the-top histrionics, the improvised anarchy, each character has an honest center to which they remain true.  This makes everyone watchable; in lesser hands The Servant Of Two Masters would be self-indulgent to an extreme.  This is some of the best acting in the area, ever.   You could summarize the plot on a paper napkin; the prowess of the performers makes this play.

The grand and vastly talented Steven Epp plays Truffaldino.  This is a stock character in plays like this: a servant, a trickster, exploiting the bluster and stupidity of his (supposèd) betters.  Epp excels makes Truffaldino the rousing center of the play – no small feat given the talent on display.  But, OK, here’s my main criticism of The Servant Of Two Masters: I hated Truffaldino’s mask.  I longed to see the expressive kisser of Epp.

To say that this play uses anachronism is like saying that Minnesota is chilly in the winter.  It’s constant: references to the fiscal cliff, to Bed Bath and Beyond, to the auguste A Christmas Carol playing next door, etc, etc.  The play employs a scattershot approach to comedy.  That bit didn’t quite work, but OMG here comes the next one, everyone, duck!  Thirty minutes could be taken out of this show to excellent effect, but you might be too busy hooting and howling to much notice the length.

Who, I hear you asking, wrote The Servant Of Two Masters?  The program cites Carlo Goldoni as the main culprit.  Goldoni’s achievement, as you may know, was to give the mostly improvised Italian Commedia dell’Arte an 18th century literary sheen.  Then there’s translator Christina Sibul and adaptationist Constance Congdon.  Their work was further adapted by Epp and resourceful director Christopher Bayes.  And of course every actor is given free rein to improvise.  IOW, the short answer is: everyone.

Highly recommended.

For more info about John Olive please visit his website.

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