Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century farce The Servant of Two Masters must have a near perfect comic plot. It has certainly caught the attention of an impressive number of English-speaking theaters in recent years. Ashland offered a popular production in 2009, shortly before Britain’s National Theatre came up with a 1960s Anglo version called One Man Two Guv’nors which was the hottest ticket in town when I visited London in 2011. The show then crossed the Atlantic to play 173 US performances with star James Corden shocking Broadway pundits by nabbing a 2012 best lead-actor Tony from under the nose of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman.
If you want to see what all the cheering’s been about, make your way to Carmel for a loud, hilarious, non-stop version, adapted by Constance Congdon and explosively directed by Kenneth Kelleher. It had a Sunday afternoon audience on their feet and cheering in Pacific Rep’s Circle Theatre.
It centers on Truffaldino, a transient serving-man with one eye cocked to a paycheck and the other to a square meal. He signs on with two patrons simultaneously and races through a series of desperate and largely unsuccessful struggles to keep the two assignments from getting tangled. Like a skilled farce plotter, Goldoni exploits the ins and outs of the basic situation with riotous results.
Congdon and Kelleher accompany the action with every jokey Italian cliché you ever heard of and some others you would never have guessed at. The production is full throated, and never stops for breath. Well, hardly ever. There’s a superb moment when we hit a sudden pause, nobody’s on stage and we’re all beginning to squirm in our seats wondering who has dropped a cue when somebody in the audience begins to comment unflatteringly on the glitch. Turns out it is Cassidy Brown’s glorious Truffaldino chatting up a clump of second row patrons before jumping back on stage. It’s that kind of show. You race relentlessly along funny if predictable comic hallways and then have the carpet unexpectedly pulled from under you. I know. I got a water bucket full of confetti emptied on me in Act 1, and, having recovered from that indignity, had my program snatched from me briefly in Act 2 so Truffaldino could check on the answer to a question somebody on stage had just asked him.
If this sounds like the description of a one-man show, think again. The cast is a well-drilled ensemble who get a two-hour workout; they never missed a beat on Sunday. Michelle Vallentyne and Juliet Heller, who showed enticing explosions of comic talent in Pacific Rep’s Winter’s Tale, come fully into their own in Servant. Vallentyne is all panting and explosive emotion as a mindless Italian redhead named Clarice (last syllable “-chay,” of course) and Heller is a total delight as Beatrice (“Be-a-TREE-chay”), the bereaved sister of Vallentyne’s dead fiancé. Bea has decided for reasons too complicated to worry about that she will take the standard Shakespearean expedient of disguising herself as the dear departed brother and so becoming “engaged“ to Vallentyne. Sound complicated? This is Italian farce, folks. Heller’s struts and rants as Vallentyne’s swain and one of Truffaldino’s two male “masters” are as exciting as are her final moments as a full-scale sexy Venetian babe complete with operatic vocal cords.
As her rival for Vallentyne’s hand (“and the rest of her too, of course”) Sam Fife continues to make a fine art out of romantically-challenged doofusses. Fife’s ever hopeful Silvio has the swashbuckling heart of a Fairbanks or Flynn, but he keeps slicing off bits of thumb every time he draws his sword and would scornfully throw down the gauntlet at the feet of his rival if he could just get the damned glove off his hand.
Far more successfully macho, the disguised Beatrice’s lover is an extensively tattooed and street- (canal?) smart Venetian named Florindo. Played with high energy by the artful Sean Patrick Nil, Florindo is all heroic brawn and bluster but intellectually limited. He just can’t quite seem to get the difference between Torino and Toronto.
Less athletic but almost equally busy, D. Scott McQuiston as Pantalone shuttles between smarmy onstage gush with Clarice’s transvestite fiancé and howls of offstage rage at his daughter’s stubborn unwillingness to succumb to her squeaky-voiced suitor.
Garland Thompson, almost unrecognizable in a flapping academic wig, is hairy, pompous and explosive as Fife’s pedantic dad.
Between double-barreled struggles with steamer trunks and undecipherable messages, the frantic Truffaldino still manages to fall in love. His eye and heart light—and no wonder—on the delectable Katie Rose Krueger in the role of Smeraldina, a serving maid who manages to make even dusting look sexy and sounds off intermittently as a caustic Venetian feminist.
Then there is Michael Wiles, who not only delightfully hosts the local inn, but mans the keyboard for soulful background music, including such Italian hits as “Some Enchanted Evening” and the “Tara” theme from Gone with the Wind.
It’s fun, it’s fast and it’s frantic. Go have a look, a listen and a laugh!
Photo by Stephen Moorer: D. Scott McQuiston & Michael Wiles