The Mother of All Slapstick: THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS at Resident Ensemble Players

by Ruth K. Brown

Education has always been a key aspect of theatre. Whether the production is spoofing current political mores or presenting the aspects of a particularly difficult social issue, a theatrical goal through the ages has been to educate the audience. The UD Resident Ensemble Players (REP) took this to an entirely new level with their production of THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. Commenting on this particular production will be difficult to impossible without first providing an overview of the theatrical convention in which it was written.

That convention is Commedia dell’Arte. Even though some of the concepts of Commedia dell’Arte date back to Roman and Greek theatre, Italy in the 16th century was where it flourished. Some historians believe that it was developed as a response to the specific political and economic crises of the day. Playwrights needed their works to appeal to a large audience; therefore, what they wrote contained elements that would appeal both to the illiterate masses and to the educated aristocracy. This form of theatre became so popular that actors would play certain roles for a lifetime honing the idiosyncrasies of their characters to a fine point resulting in audiences coming specifically to see them. The characters could be referred to in modern parlance as stereotypes since they are fixed social types and they do not respond except as expected. Common characters included foolish old men, devious servants, and officious military men. Along with these fixed characters and the masks that allowed audiences to immediately identify them, Commedia dell’Arte allowed women to be actors and added the concept of improvisation. Scripts were broad outlines allowing the characters to be both physically audacious and surprisingly literate. While their broad physical humor appealed to the unwashed, their improv included current news events and important people of the time appealing much more to the educated audience.

With that very basic understanding of Commedia dell’Arte as a theatrical form, it is easier to analyze the dazzling and dizzying production performed by the REP. The flat and colorful set design by Scott Bradley leaves a large playing space. It seems almost cartoonish until the play begins and then its incredible flexibility comes to the fore. The defined side sections appear to be waiting areas and the painted sign announcing the play to be performed is center stage. The town doors open and the cacophony begins. Faced with a very large horse walking toward you and a wagon full of colorful and loud people, one realizes immediately this production will be something very different. Director, Paolo Emilio Landi is unquestioningly knowledgeable about this theatrical form and supremely creative as he literally “unrolls” the stage and introduces the playing troupe. Reminiscent of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and THE MAN OF LA MANCHA the players use the waiting areas as “off stage” where they gather and prepare to reappear on stage. Landi, however, takes control of audience attention and keeps us squarely in 16th century Italy. Bold, colorful, multi-layered and sexually appealing costuming was provided by Santi Migneco. The costume fitting was excellent also to allow each performer to dance, whirl and caper across the stage with no need to worry about a “costume malfunction”.

The Commedia dell’Arte characters from Resident Ensemble Players’ THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. (Photo credit: Paul Cerro)

This particular play, written by Carlo Goldoni, is a spectacular mish-mash of mayhem. The conventions of star-crossed lovers, meddling fathers, and imperious suitors are mixed with conniving and gregarious servants to present the audience with an initially confusing and yet ultimately satisfying production. While the introduction of the myriad plot pieces was initially confusing and it seemed like this production could be best appreciated as a giant wave washing over, it began to make sense once our comic center appeared on stage. The boundless physicality and clear speech of the ever hungry servant, Truffaldino, played with amazing aplomb and creativity by Lee Ernst, cleared up the confusion and kept the audience aligned with all of the crazy plot driving antics. Speaking of high energy antics, Landi and this cast displayed their physical dexterity with an amazing “plate bit” (no spoiler alert here!) and their verbal dexterity and improv skills by using references to the Blue Hens, Hillary Clinton, and health care among many others. Complimenting this cast individually would take too much space, but let it be known that their ensemble work was tight, supportive and some of the best seen by this reviewer. From the smallest roles to the largest, each actor was skilled and added to the level of spectacle required for this enthralling production of THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. Special kudos to Steve Tague (Pantalone), Michael Gotch (Silvio V. Lombardi), Kathleen Pirkl Tague (Beatrice Rasponi), Mic Matarrese (Florindo Aretusi), Erin Partin (Clarice) and Carine Montbertrand (Smeraldina). Their work went above and beyond!

It will be hard for anyone to remember a faster paced production than this one. REP did a more than creditable job with this difficult material written in a difficult theatrical form, challenging their audience not to “climb” aboard but to “jump” aboard and take this frenetic, highly entertaining, raucously amusing ride with them. BRAVISSIMO!!

Written by Carlo Goldoni
Translated and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi
Directed by Paolo Emilio Landi
November 14 – December 8, 2013
Resident Ensemble Players
Roselle Center for the Arts
110 Orchard Road
Newark, DE 19716
Box Office: 302-831-2204



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