The Servant of Two Masters

The Guthrie sticks a little too close to the historic play's commedia dell'arte style

<i>The Servant of Two Masters</i>
Richard Termine

We've all had those evenings, especially around Christmas and other winter holidays. It could be a family gathering or a work party or just a bunch of friends gathered together. The food is good and plentiful, the drink — maybe a cheap-but-not-bad wine or a steady stream of harder stuff — loosens everyone up. There is plenty of talk, gales of laughter, a vibe that can't be beat. And after a few hours, you can't help the feeling that you need some fresh air to stave off a growing headache.

The Servant of Two Masters is like that party: loud, a lot of fun, and something that eventually makes you wish for an escape.

The cast is top-notch, well rehearsed, and often extremely funny. The highly stylized commedia dell'arte approach does get in the way and contributes to the exhaustion. The characters are intended to be "stock," with the actors using their own expertise to spin increasingly mad situations onstage.

Servant of Two Masters boasts a talented cast having obvious fun
Richard Termine
Servant of Two Masters boasts a talented cast having obvious fun

Details

The Servant of Two Masters
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612.377.2224; through Jan. 20

By the end, all of this has gone on for too long, which strips the finale of part of its impact. That's a shame, as the final moments of the play should be a surprising delight, not offer a breath of relief that the show is over.

The play dates back to the middle 18th century and playwright Carlo Goldoni. To be more accurate, it's from a skeleton of ideas given by Goldoni to a company of actors, who fleshed it out. Eventually Goldoni took the material back, cut aside some of the bawdier material, and crafted a finished play.

That, in turn, was translated by Christina Sibul and then adapted by Constance Congdon. Director Christopher Bayes and collaborator Steven Epp further adapted the work, and I'm sure the company has contributed bits along the way.

The plot is a few microns thick. The death of a promised husband in a duel sets two households aflutter. They get even more fluttered when a man arrives claiming to be the murder victim. He's not. Instead it is Beatrice, the dead man's sister. She is hunting for his murderer — also her lover — Florindo, because why not? The servant of the title, Truffaldino, manages to attach himself to both Beatrice and Florindo.

The mixture of confused identities, multiple masters, and star-crossed (or maybe just cross-eyed) lovers gives the company plenty of raw ingredients to make up their comedic dishes. (I draw that analogy not just because I haven't had breakfast, but because Truffaldino's hunger is a major component here.)

This is also where things go from a lean, reasonable diet to a vast banquet full of overstuffed delights. The company is adept at verbal, visual, and physical humor. That starts at the top with Epp's effortless turn as Truffaldino. The character is in constant distress, using every bit of guile he can manage to stay afloat, and Epp's highly developed skills serve him well throughout.

Beyond that, the show is full of funny performances, especially from Sarah Agnew, Allen Gilmore, and Jesse J. Perez. The fast-paced comedy has touches of everything from the Marx Brothers to references to The Music Man and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The performance even had a Carol Burnett Show moment midway through the second act. Gilmore, as the foolish father Pantelone (whose red and yellow costume reminds me for all the world of the Silver Age Flash), took a pratfall and then spent the next several minutes dragging himself across the stage in an attempt to stand up. All the while, scene-mate Chivas Michael fought to control himself. Even with his back to the audience, it was clear that Michael was quaking with laughter and had to fight to finish the scene. It was a real sign that the company was having a ton of fun performing onstage.

For the most part, that came across in The Servant of Two Masters. The cast's charms as performers mostly overcame the occasional slow moment or too-stylized action. Still, a course or two less might have made the entire meal more pleasurable, as the individual highlights could stand out even more.

 
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