Monday, October 26, 2009

review of *The Servant of Two Masters*

Oct. 24 at OSF in Ashland

The improv bits, which were brilliant and amazing, extended the normal run time of the 18th-century Goldoni farce (adapted here by director Tracy Young) by 45 minutes on Saturday night.
Which was both a delight and disadvantage.
We opened with a commedia troupe in mid-rehearsal, bickering over budget cuts and the sad state of our economy. The power kept cutting out (especially during juggling acts and swordfights that would have been just amazing, if only we could have seen them). Costumes still had tags on them; props had to be pulled out of trunks from some other play. Allusions to all the other OSF plays and current political figures ensued. So far, just fine, but not anything you couldn’t have seen done with equal gusto at your local theater.
But a commedia romp like Goldoni’s — with its prefabricated bits of shtick and its impossibly convoluted plot (with a woman disguised as her brother, to get the dowry due him before his supposed murder, and romance popping up among both masters and servants, and poor Harlequin/Truffaldino, the title character, stuck with dual loyalties and an always-hungry stomach) — holds the promise of unexpected comic gems.
The first bit had Truffaldino (Mark Bedard) lamenting how hungry he was and begging the audience for a sandwich -- never expecting that anyone would actually have one. (It was peanut butter and jelly. They ended up eating half of it and then stomping on it. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t scripted.) There was a teacher, looked like Dr. Andrew Weil, in the front row, who turned out to be more of a card than the professional clown. When the chief jokester took up a collection at intermission, hoping for lots of candy, the crowd really responded. The comic stereotypes were lots of fun: A pink-haired, air-headed ballerina (that afternoon’s Helena in All’s Well). The effeminate young lover, more interested in his own Three Musketeers lace than he is in his girl. Pantalone and Il Dottore. A Mandy-Patinkin-in-Princess Bride type.
The pace was hyper-energetic, even breath-taking, with Truffaldino making diving catches of food heaved at him from the upper playing levels. (This show was in the round at the New Theater; All’s Well had been in the thrust; the other three I saw here were at the 600-seat Bowmer.)
I wasn’t particularly in the mood for silliness (though I thought I was, it being Saturday night and all) — maybe because this was, counting two plays I’d seen in Spokane before leaving, my ninth play in 11 days.
It’s difficult to be consistently funny for more than three hours. And Truffaldino was spoofing so much with audience members that it extended all the fun, though almost unnoticeably.
The running joke was that everyone was deathly afraid of the tiny woman playing the cook —with a giant setup like that, there had to be a payoff, and it was both hilarious and gory.
A lot of inspired comedic moments flew past so quickly that you could barely register them.

[photo: from Oregon Shakespeare Festival -- Elijah Alexander as Florindo and Mark Bedard in the title role in The Servant of Two Masters, directed by Tracy Young, March-Nov. 2009]

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