The Commedia dell’arte world is not a particularly three dimensional one. Characters don’t have much psychological complexity: Pantalone, for example, cares mainly about money, the Dottore is a pompous pedant, and the zanni, or servants, are motivated solely by the desire for food and fear of their masters.
So it seems absolutely right that what first greets you when you take your seat at the O’Reilly for the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters is a set (designed by James Noone) that looks like an enlarged black and white comic strip rendering of an Italian city street. And it feels even more right when that set revolves at the beginning of the play to reveal characters dressed in a sixties’ riot of polka dots and paisleys in pink, lime, orange, green, and lavender (costumes by Amy Clark). The effect is that of an animated cartoon: a perfect world for this play, whose characters have the kind of antic behavior and oversized, disconnected emotions most of us would associate with the Cartoon Network.
The title character of the play is Truffaldino (Jimmy Kieffer), who becomes servant to two masters when his first master, Beatrice (Jessica Wortham) – traveling incognito as her brother, Federigo – fails to provide him with lunch in a timely manner, and he opportunistically seizes on an offer of employment from Florindo (David Whalen), in hopes of making a little more money and getting a quicker meal. Unbeknownst to Truffaldino, Florindo is actually Beatrice’s lover, on the lam because he had killed her brother Federigo in a duel over Beatrice’s honor. Beatrice has come to Venice in disguise in order to collect on the money owed by Pantaloon (Bill Buell) to her brother as dowry for marrying Clarice (Erin Lindsey Krom). Beatrice doesn’t know that Florindo has also arrived in Venice, and Florindo doesn’t know that she is there posing as Federigo, and because Truffaldino has a stake in keeping his “two masters” from running into each other, they don’t realize that they are both staying at the same inn.
Complicating matters even further, having heard that Federigo had perished in the duel, Clarice has just become engaged to her sweetheart, the hotheaded “Italian Stallion” Silvio (Patrick Cannon) (son of Pantaloon’s good friend, the pedantic Dr. Lombardi (Scott Robertson)), so the unexpected resurrection of the dead “Federigo” also throws a monkey wrench in their romantic plans. Whew! Needless to say, the knots of intrigue all get unravelled by the end of the play, but not before Truffaldino creates all manner of comic confusion as he attempts to deliver letters and money and messages he’s been told to give “to his master” – and unpack two identical trunks and serve two elaborate dinners – all while keeping either of them from knowing that he is working for both at the same time.
Lee Hall’s 1999 adaptation of this eighteenth-century play is fresh and modern, and although director Ted Pappas has set the production in 1965, many of Truffaldino’s observations about the plight of the working classes – for example, the need to work twice as hard for half the benefits – resonate pointedly in our current era of economic downsizing. But although there are nuggets of social criticism scattered here and there – including an applause-gathering feminist rant on the part of Clarice’s maid, the saucy Smeraldina (Daina Michelle Griffiths) – the production is largely a romp, and a pleasurably fun one at that. Clark’s brightly colored costumes establish the character types with pizzazz – the lavender take on the traditional French maid’s uniform is a particularly lovely touch – and Pappas carries the cartoon-energy established by the set and costume design through to every aspect of the show, including the sound design (Zach Moore), which uses Loony Tunes sound effects to heighten the play’s slapstick. The terrific cast fully captures the spirit of commedia zaniness, which is not an easy thing to do, demanding, as it does, a certain abandon of dignity and embrace of the outer edges of human expression (the term zany, in fact, derives from the antic energy of the zanni, or servants, of this theatrical genre). As the clown servant Truffaldino, Kieffer commands the comic action, and one of his lazzi – a bit that involves the rather, er, intricate folding of a letter – is one of the most masterful bits of stage comedy I’ve seen. The loose-limbed Cannon and pert Krom are also standouts as the lovers Silvio and Clarice, their amped-up emotional range in total sync with the clashing colors of their clothes.
The whole is underscored by an appropriate, and often comically rendered, selection of classic Italian romantic tunes, one of which you’ll even get to sing along to as the show draws to a close. How fun is that?