On Thursday, the Dan School of Drama and Music opened their fall major, The Servant of Two Masters.
With a talented cast plucked from the newly-renamed school, the audience was transported back to eighteenth century Venice for a hilarious exploration of marriage, love and making a quick buck.
Originally written by Carlo Goldoni in 1746, A Servant of Two Masters brings the Venetian style of street performance known as the Commedia dell’arte to the stage. The comedy follows the figure, Truffaldino, as he attempts to earn two wages by serving two separate masters.
One of the four characters wearing the masks of the ‘commedia dell’arte’ tradition, Truffaldino is originally the servant of Beatrice, who’s pretending to be her dead brother Federigo to find her lover Florindo. Truffaldino then takes on Florindo as a second master, unaware of his relationship to his other master and unknowingly to Beatrice, who is still searching for her lover.
Much of the play’s drama results from this arrangement as Truffaldino is unaware of the history of his two masters and consistently presented with dilemmas when other characters fail to specify which master.
Goldoni’s comedic spider web frankly examines topics of marriage, familial duty and true love through a plethora of vignettes that resounded greatly with me. I applaud the production for handling these heavy themes so tactfully, making this a show that split my sides and left me absorbed by its content for many days following.
What made this play a hit was the interplay between characters. Right down to the waiters who spoke in remarkably-thick French accents, each actor provided their own sui generis brand of comedy.
I was struck by the humour embedded in every line, mannerism and action of the characters. I laughed harder during the performance than I had at any movie or TV show I’d recently seen.
According to my program, the masks worn by four of the characters — Pantalone, The Doctor, Brighella and Truffaldino — were a challenge for director Greg Wanless and the cast, requiring a heightened sense of physicality to compensate for the lack of facial expression.
These masks, which I admit threw me off at first, soon revealed their use. Each actor became a physical embodiment of their character, using their actions and movements to narrate their emotions in ways the others on stage didn’t need to, which showed their ability as performers.
Sam Woods’ ’18 rendition of Truffaldino, the titular servant who manages to dupe a group of wealthy Italian merchants to assuage his rumbling belly and empty wallet, drove the play with his larger-than-life personality and untamed humour. He hopped across the stage with ease, and delivered his trickster figure seamlessly — especially during the side-splitting dinner scene, when he stuffed his face with trifle while attempting to simultaneously serve two different masters without them knowing.
Of the actors without masks, Gabi Sandler ’17 played a double role without breaking a sweat. Because Beatrice is forced to masquerade as her deceased brother to get the money she needs to marry Florindo, her character is thrust into many awkward situations. At one point, Beatrice is forced into a duel, using a pistol to force her opponent to capitulate.
Sandler played both a gruff merchant dealing with the scheming miser, Pantalone, and the markedly-feminine Beatrice so deftly that the characters could’ve been two different actors if not for the fact that they wore the same pinstriped suit.
The phenomenal actors played their parts complimented by an ingenious set, designed by Wallis Caldoza ’17. Using two large triangular barriers positioned across from each other mid-stage, the stage crew was able to seamlessly change from the Venice waterways, to Brighella’s tavern to Pantalone’s house. As the lights dimmed, two singers popped out of the wings, one with an accordion and the other a violin, to serenade the audience as, with a simple twist of the set, we were in a whole new part of town.
The costumes, designed by Parker O’Connor ’17, were also inventive and gave off an old fashioned Italian feel. Made from assorted pieces of clothing mixed with everyday household items, the characters’ outfits only revealed their trickery when examined more closely. Clarice’s skirt was made from straws and Silvio’s jacket buttons were painted bottle caps. The ingenuity behind every costume, prop and set piece is what made this show so entertaining.
The director managed to elicit a diverse set of performances from the actors by allowing them to exercise their individual creativity. While most of the other characters spoke with some degree of Italian inflection, Smeraldina, the servant of Pantalone, wore a maid costume and spoke in a Southern American accent.
While the choice originally seemed anachronistic to me, Julia Dickson ’18 managed to make it believable. She used the natural cadence of the accent to punctuate and amplify her lines; it seemed to me the character could have been nothing other than a Southern housemaid.
In Smeraldina’s soliloquy about the iniquity of the men in the play, she railed at how they create self serving systems of justice and business that allow them to take advantage of everyone else. And, as Dickson protested against inequality, in her sixties maid’s outfit and thick Southern drawl, I felt her anger and frustration. It was surprising how relevant Smeraldina’s grievances were, given this play was written by an Italian almost three hundred years ago.
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