Monday, July 5, 2010

REVIEW: STNJ "Two Masters" = Double Trouble, Double Fun

THEATER REVIEW: One character calls the nutty events “a pretty pickle”; another dubs them a “stew”; still another, a “mess”; and a fourth feels as if he’s in a “melodrama.” They’re all right on the money at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's nifty performance of Carlo Goldoni’s 250-year-old comedic masterpiece, The Servant of Two Masters, at the outdoor amphitheater on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Madison through August 1.

Called the “Molière of Italy,” Goldoni melds the rowdy 16th century commédia dell’arte form with the more refined 18th century comedy of manners. A sassy new adaptation by STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte imbues the script with 21st century idioms. Filled with mistaken identities, misunderstandings and disguised characters (one a woman dressed as a man), The Servant of Two Masters is filled with exuberant mayhem that will leave you laughing long after you’ve left the theater.

The convoluted plot revolves around the complications wrought by Truffaldino, the hapless—and always hungry—servant of the title, when he hatches a scheme to double his salary (and his meals) by serving two different masters at the same time. Not all of the complications are of his own making, however. One of his “masters” is in fact a lady in disguise and the other is her lover, but Truffaldino does not know this.
Jason King Jones directs his talented cast with high energy, leaving nary a moment for the audience (and the characters) to question the highly improbable nonsense unfolding before our/their very eyes. Kevin Judge’s beautiful set, featuring a piazza and loggia, and Paul Canada’s elaborate Restoration-style costumes transport the audience through time and space to Venice—about the only credible aspect of the entire play.

The lack of credibility is not a failing of the production, however; by definition a play like The Servant of Two Masters is supposed to be filled with implausible and improbable events and gullible characters. The talented actors rise to the challenge and then some. As Truffaldino, Alex Morj turns cartwheels, performs pratfalls, races frantically between his two masters and talks nonstop in an effort to deflect any suspicion from his screwball antics. It’s difficult to take your eyes from him whenever he’s onstage. But Truffaldino is not the only wacky character in this comedy. Jordan Coughtry as Silvio and Susan Maris as Clarice are appropriately dimwitted young lovers besotted with love. The fathers of the two are based on stock commédia dell’arte characters; William Metzo is the skinflint Pantalone to a T, and Colin McPhillany, as the pompous Il Dottore (the Doctor), has a grand time spouting Latin aphorisms no one understands.

Jeffrey M. Bender provides superb support as the innkeeper Brighella, the only person who recognizes Beatrice Rosponi of Turin disguised as her late brother who has come to Venice to collect the dowry promised him by Pantalone when his marriage to Clarice was arranged. Even dressed as a man and affecting a deep voice, Caralyn Koslowski lights up the stage with her grace, beauty and comedic timing. Pounding her chest—only to feel pain in her bosom—or grabbing her crotch as a young man might, she’s hilarious, but she’s equally as sympathetic when confessing her love for Florindo, who has killed her brother in a duel, to her new BFF Clarice. And Matthew Simpson is perfect as the lovesick Florindo, who finds himself “adrift in a sea of confusion” over two sets of letters, a miniature of his likeness and an account book belonging to Beatrice.

Similar to Shakespearean comedies, commédia dell’arte and Restoration comedy both feature a wise servant who gets to “stick it to the man.” In this play, that character is the earthy, lusty Smeraldina, Clarice’s maid, played with great élan by Amanda Duffy. Hungry for love, she looks at every man with interest, until her eyes alight on Truffaldino. Their courtship is fraught with roadblocks, but rest assured, all ends well after much merriment.

Eschewing the usual 90-minute versions of classical comedies performed in the outdoor space, STNJ’s version of The Servant of Two Masters clocks in at just under two hours with an intermission. Fear not, however, for the nonstop pandemonium makes the time fly by, and your sides will ache from laughing so hard. So bring a picnic, your entire family, a blanket or a chair and be prepared for an evening of more than double entertainment and fun!

The Servant of Two Masters will be performed Tuesdays through Sundays at 8:15 p.m. through August 1. The Greek Theatre is located on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth, 2 Convent Road in Morris Plains (behind the Madison Hotel). For information and tickets, call the box office at (973) 408-5600 or visit