a scene-stealing performing dog. The canine never misses a cue, dashing
across the stage in split-second time, or scarfing down the servant’s
dinner before the young man can get to it. His hind leg never
improvises the unexpected. The pooch’s polished comportment and
discipline indicate the tightly wound precision of this production.
When a male servant (“I’m a waiter, not a porter!”) rises to click his
heels at an exit, he’s two steps before the doorway with his body at a
Leaning Tower of Pisa angle. This is the rare madcap comedy where
nothing ever goes wrong.
Send in the clowns: SU Drama students have fun in Servant of Two Masters. Michael Davis photo.
Director Leslie Noble, an SU adjunct professor, bills
herself as an “actor, director and clown.” The last term, of course,
commands the most attention and contributes much to the current
production. For several years Noble and her pals Pat Buckley and Lauren
Unbekant comprised the Gams on the Lam company, performing clowning
routines at festivals and colleges around the world. Much of their
comedy was physical.
Additionally, Noble has been associated with the Le Moyne
College program, where commedia dell’ arte and Carlo Goldoni have been
longtime interests. She brings authority to this production. In a sense
every character is to some degree a clown who can provoke amusement
just by standing there.
For all Servant’s roots in 18th-century Italy,
Noble’s handling of Goldoni has something of the feel of silent-film
comedy, where every aspect of character is revealed through body set,
gesture and mime. Any oldster in the audience could turn off the
hearing aid and would still understand everything that’s going on.
Goldoni’s farces are blessedly without redeeming social
content. But unlike Moliere’s comedies, with which his work is unwisely
compared, he’s always rooted in the real world and the tensions of the
street. Truffaldino (Jacob Heimer), the servant of the title, stumbles
into employment by two masters because he needs the work. It’s not
chicanery that drives him but hunger. He addresses his empty, growling
stomach as “My darling,” consoling it when, for example, the dog eats
his dinner. Not insignificantly, the same device catapults Frances
McDormand to adventure in the current comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.
Stick with Truffaldino if you want to figure out what’s
happening. Illiterate, he cannot read opened letters, yet he
nonetheless tells the truth, especially to himself. Just about everyone
else is either self-infatuated or misrepresentative.
Most characters borrow from the stock
figures in commedia dell’arte, like the blustering, self-important
paterfamilias Pantalone (Ian Michael Austin), who won’t let his
empty-headed but full-bodied daughter Clarice (Lauren Port) marry the
twerp she’s infatuated with, Silvio (Mark Dorenfast). The father is
saving his daughter for the distant Federico Responi, the man of high
status to whom she is betrothed. Trouble is, there is some question
Responi is still alive or will ever show up. Could Responi possibly be
the epicene but beguiling creature Beatrice (Kaitlin Dale), who appears
in Responi’s bright orange clothing claiming to be him? Carrying
weighty luggage, this Responi needs a servant and so hires Truffaldino.
The servant’s second master, Florindo (Chris Dall’au),
arrives later. He’s a handsome, black-clad, snarling alpha male whose
boots scrape the ground like a bull in the mating season but who also
appears to be less well-endowed between the ears. Conveniently for
Truffaldino, the somber Florindo and the brightly colored Responi are
not on stage at the same time, and bit by bit we see this one-guy-in,
one-guy-out shtick has something to do with the relation the characters
have with each other.
Learning how events play out is not one
of the reasons why people are attracted to Goldoni; instead, they are
drawn to the fun plot twists he can provide. Truffaldino works out a
routine with sloe-eyed innkeeper Brighella (Ida Clay), one of the few
characters whose astuteness matches the servant’s. Wise also is the
lovely, exposition-giving servant Smeraldina (Anna Cometa). Silvio’s
pompous, pot-bellied father, Dr. Lombardi (John Curtis), can’t take his
hat off without lifting his wig along with it. Without giving too much
away, there are also parallel suicide attempts. Both fail.
Comparing performances in student productions can be
invidious, especially when student X feels he or she would have had an
advantage in a different role. The roles that catch you are the ones
requiring a leap, like Chris Dall’au’s bull-headed Florindo. In his
last outing Dall’au was the sexually wounded Brick in SU Drama’s highly
successful Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last fall. Kaitlin Dale’s
double character, to give that away, requires two signals, masculine
and feminine, with every step. As the fatuous and infatuated Clarice,
Lauren Port delivers more than she is called upon. She gets laughs just
A break from modern dress is a fabulous
invitation to costumer Bethany Richards, to which she responds with a
riot of color and texture. Lauren Levesque’s adaptable set design
allows easy switches from indoors to outdoors as well as a veiled
window through which we can watch Clarice’s machinations. Christine E.
Bernat’s lighting design carves out emotional niches in broad spaces.
For all the visual and physical pleasure in A Servant of Two Masters,
director Noble’s selection of the Tom Cone adaptation and translation,
originally prepared for Ontario’s Stratford Festival, opens the work up
to contemporary audiences. No mere drudge, Cone went on to an admirable
international career, mostly writing comedy. His Herringbone: A Musical of Possession appeared here with the former Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse in 1993.
A Servant of Two Masters first appeared in 1745. For sheer frivolity, it beats most comedies written today.
This production runs through Sunday, March 30. See Times Table for information.