Friday, November 4, 2011

AUM: "Servant of Two Masters"

Italian comic playwright Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters has been on stage almost continually since 1743, making the rounds of professional and educational theatres and finally landing again at Theatre AUM where, under Neil David Seibel's direction, it affords veteran and neophyte actors opportunities and challenges to build on.

Based on the improvizational commedia dell'arte traditions of the 16th Century, the play's stock characters and exaggerated comic style provide this ensemble company a wealth of occasions to hone their craft.

The scenario gets a bit confusing, and requires significant "suspension of disbelief" from the audience, but in a nutshell: Beatrice [Tina Neese] disguises herself as her deceased twin brother Federico in order to get back from Pantalone [Mark Dasinger, Jr.] a dowry so she can find and marry Florindo [Wes Milton]; only Brighella [Shane Tyus] knows Beatrice's true identity; Pantalone's daughter Clarice [Brittany Carden] loves Silvio [Geoffrey Morris], the son of the pompous Dr. Lombardi [Nicholas Warman], but has been promised im marriage to Federico; Beatrice entrusts money & goods to her sly servant Truffaldino [La'Brandon Tyre] who, in attempting to get even more for himself, agrees to also be Florindo's servant.

As the script requires that the two masters can not be on stage simultaneously until the end, our focus is on Truffaldino's ability to extricate himself from potential problems while pleasing both masters equally. With an assortment of keys, letters, and property given to him by various characters with the admonition of only "for your master", the illiterate servant can not tell which "master" is meant, and has to extricate himself from numerous difficulties which after much confusion bring all the lovers together, forgiveness for Truffaldino, and his own marriage to the crafty servant Smeraldina [Laura Bramblette].

In true commedia form, the characters are broadly drawn: crafty servants, romantic lovers, foolish fathers, pompous doctors -- all have certain conventional manners of walking and talking, and costumes [gorgeously rendered by Val Winkelman with an eye to commedia conventions & stylish characterizations] recognizable instantly in the theatre. The AUM company paint them in bold strokes that suggest their characters; some are more successful than others, but given that several actors here have little stage experience, their efforts succeed only to a degree. [In commedia, actors took years to perfect the expressions, postures, and lazzi (stage business) of a single character type, and spent whole careers playing just that one role.] What these young actors have accomplished in a few weeks is a good start...and most of the cast have achieved a fine sense of comic timing.

Although much of the enjoyment comes from the physical behavior on stage -- and the ensemble commits to its demands very well -- the complexities of the plot & character relationships are found in the brilliantly witty dialogue. Regretably, a lot of the words are muddled in their articulation, especially when delivered as rapidly & passionately as the style demands.

Cliff Merrit's forced perspective "street-scene" backdrop and a lot of open space provide plenty of room for the physical action; and the music choices that begin with the pre-show music and punctuate the goings-on throughout cleverly comment on the Italian setting as well as the particular events -- everything from Rosemary Clooney singing "Mambo Italiano" to the theme from "The Godfather" and Dean Martin's "That's Amore". -- And Mr. Seibel also adds a sweet [but too short] sequence where the lovers eat a plate of spaghetti right out of "Lady and the Tramp".

Theatre AUM is again presenting a challenging production that theatre students [and local audiences] experience only rarely...and this new crop of student actors is one to watch.