The Servant Of Two Masters: Stylized Fun
Dr. Jeff List
If you see SVSU’s production of The Servant of Two Masters in one of its remaining performances (and you should), be prepared for a show unlike anything else around the Great Lakes Bay Region. The bare stage as one enters the theater might lead one to believe a simplified and stark play follows. Wrong! This show gives you much more than at first look. This show is big and bawdy and lots of fun.
The Servant of Two Masters, written by Carlo Goldoni in 1746, and this production in particular, owe much to a storied theatre tradition known as commedia dell'arte. Commedia relies on big and bold stock characters. Their acting, dialogue, and, especially, movement all feed the exaggerated performance. The ribald jokes frequently refer to various bodily functions and “sexy time.” Several characters wear masks and costumes which contribute to the general affect and status, contributing to the feel of the play. In one instance, Pantalone wears two pouch of coins low around the waist, suggesting the character’s sexual prowess.
The plot of the show, like many of the time, is full of mistaken identities, disguises, confusion, and love triangles, occasionally a love quadrangle. A plot summary might go something like this (as far as I gather): Beatrice disguises herself as her twin brother Federigo to claim a dowry from his betrothed’s father Pantalone so she can secure the freedom of her love Florindo, who killed Federigo. The play centers on the adventures of Truffaldino, who starts as Federigo’s servant, only to take on the role of Florindo’s servant at the prospect of an extra meal. Confusion ensues when Truffaldino has to perform tasks “for his master,” often not knowing which master. Silvio, Clarice’s fiancé when everyone believes Federigo is dead, wants revenge, but isn’t manly enough to achieve it. In the end, after the confusion clears, Beatrice reunites with Florindo, Clarice gets to marry Silvio, and even Truffaldino finds love in the arms of Smeraldina.
Confused? Don’t worry. The production includes plenty of exposition, often in the form of a character that looks like a modern vibe on commedia. The modern dress is laughably distracting, occasionally a bit too distracting. Larger point: enjoy the show and the action - don’t get too caught up in the comedically convoluted plot.
The greatest triumph of director Dave Rzeszutek is in teaching this large cast the movement, technique, and style necessary for commedia. Each character has different a movement style, requiring specific training. Rzeszutek adds lots of action and keeps the pace up so the action doesn’t get slowed by the plot. His touches make for an entertaining theatre. Bringing Smeraldina out for a quick quiz, while limited in actual exposition, was a fun moment - even if I didn’t get any of the candy tossed into the audience. Another high point in staging was a brief battle between Silvio and Beatrice as Federigo. His staging and pace enhance the fun of the experience.
Dominic Pnacek as Truffaldino bears a heavy responsibility, carrying much of the action of the play. His energy and timing help carry that load. He excels most when at risk of getting caught in his divided loyalties. He squirms out of trouble with aplomb. He also never loses his energy and largely maintains his stylized character. He shows moments of tremendous skill.
Melanie Franca as Clarice is another high mark in this production. When she cries, the audience laughs. Every time. Her fits of rage and sorrow are delightfully fun. Smeraldina, played by Tristian Evanoff, is highly enjoyable and the most consistent character throughout the show. Joshua Lloyd excels in his role as Pantalone, Clarice’s father. He is at his biggest and boldest best when directly addressing the audience. His physicality may be the best in the show, tremendously funny in character with and without the gags in the show. Brianne Dolney plays the self-assured Beatrice-as-Federigo with tremendous skill. Her chemistry with Pnacek shows in her scolding and beating the overmatched Truffaldino.
Ari Whisman as Dr. Lombardi and Holly Houck as Brighella deserve special recognition for successfully navigating the physical demands of the role. They each play quintessential commedia types with sound success. Both achieved what they needed to within very specific demands of the role.
While many of the performances “fit within the world of the play,” some were not able to maintain the consistency and skillfulness of others. These are difficult roles, and some succeeded more than others.
Jerry Dennis’ set design was high creative and remarkably attractive. As I wrote above, an audience member enters to a bare stage. Carts are pulled onto stage and, over the course of a couple minutes, a full and functional set is erected with plenty of space for acting. Natasha Nash as lighting designer put together an appropriate design where the effects enhanced the mood without distracting from the action. Keep an eye out for the paintings of props designer Devin Burke. No spoilers, but very fun.
While I think people should go see this great piece of educational and area theatre, I fully acknowledge the jokes and style will limit its appeal. I liked it. It’s big and bold and fun.
The Servant of Two Masters plays in the Malcolm FieldTheatre, Oct 31-Nov 3 at 7:30pm and Nov 4th at 3pm. For tickets, visit: