Quinnipiac University’s Theater For Community program, which makes up their main stage theater, is known for darker, grittier works. During my time at Quinnipiac [QU], the company produced works by Sarah Ruhl, Naomi Wallace, Tina Howe and Neil LaBute. Lots of people died, others cursed and cried and had sex, sometimes all at the same time. So it’s unusual that the first show I reviewed at QU after graduating was last year’s “Arms & the Man,” a frothy and fun chocolate-cream candy of a play. Their 2015-2016 season opened with another zany comedy, “The Servant of 2 Masters” which felt, in many ways, like a spiritual sequel to “Arms.” The leads in “Arms” were back, as was the twisty plot. But where “Arms” was “Downton Abbey” meets Oscar Wilde, “2 Masters” is a full out living cartoon, a farce with the volume turned up to Spinal Tap’s legendary 11.
“The Servant Of 2 Masters,” a 1746 Italian play by Carlo Goldoni, originated as a work of Commedia Dell'arte, a style of semi-improvised and highly physical comedy known for intricate masks and stock characters (like Harlequin or Pantalone). While you can see the Commedia foundation in “Masters,” Quinnipiac’s version isn’t stuck in the show’s original Italian form. This is the kind of show where one character dresses like an 18th century war hero, another has the outfit of a 1980s news anchor. The female lead, Beatrice, spends most of the show in drag dressed like Zoro’s little brother while her beloved looks and acts like a Taratino gangster. We are clearly in the 1700s, yet the show is scored with Big Band jazz and there are references to selfie sticks and Donald Trump. I was ready for this historical hodgepodge to bother me – as it often does in productions of Let’s Modernize Shakespeare For No Reason – but it somehow never felt showy or unnecessarily weird. After a few minutes you forgot all about the disparate parts and just get sucked into the show’s bountiful energy.
The plot is one filled with tropes familiar to anyone who has ever seen Shakespeare’s mistaken identity plays, 1950s sitcoms or Bugs Bunny cartoons. It concerns Truffaldino (Gerard Lisella), a perpetually hungry and scheming manservant who works for Federigo (Christina Comizio), a gentlemen who arrives in Venice to marry the beautiful Clarice (Maggie Richardson). But things aren’t as simple as they seem because the real Federigo is dead and is being impersonated by his sister Beatrice, whose real goal is finding her long-lost beau Florindo. And things aren’t as simple as they seem because Clarice is already set to marry hotheaded Silvio (Ryan Sheehan). And things aren’t as simple as they seem because Truffaldino double booked himself as the manservant of Florindo (Dylan Carris) as well, who just happens to be staying in the same hotel as Beatrice. Phew.
While the plot is needlessly complicated, things never get too hard to follow as this adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi includes multiple asides to the audience where the actors explain the plot twists and turns, once even testing the audience in an interactive quiz. A handy “exposition” sign is hauled out at crucial moments. This kind of whimsical, fourth-wall-breaking gave the show a lot of character and leaves the audience feeling like the 13th member of the cast.
There were many strong performances in “Masters.” Comizio, who wowed in “Arms & the Man,” felt like a silent movie starlit. She was elegant and flirty as Beatrice while charismatic and cunning as her sword-wielding alter ego (a sly nod to “Princess Bride” was not misplaced). Carris, who according to his bio has never acted before, had deft comic timing and an assured, gravel-voiced delivery that wouldn’t be out of place narrating a sci-fi movie trailer. James Miller and Tyler Evon were well cast as the lovers’ blustery fathers and Nicolette Fino brought to mind a mixture of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz in her scene-stealing role as Clarice’s lonely handmaiden. Rounding out the strong, energetic ensemble was Emma Griffiths, Amber Hopwood, Eric Pfeiffer, Maggie Richardson and Tenneh Sillah.
But let’s be clear, this play is a showcase for senior Lisella who brought unbridled enthusiasm and fearless comedic chops. Channeling Jim Carrey and Robin Williams (while looking a bit like Jack Black’s Mr. Schneebly), his Truffaldino is a manic comedic creation who manages to chew through a four-course Italian feast (in a unforgettable, brilliantly choreographed scene), multiple slices of bread and most of Adam Riggs’ unit set. Between lengthy monologues and unending physical comedy bits, Lisella does a Yeoman’s job in the kind of balls to the wall showcase that not many college students, or profession actors really, get to do.
It may not be a surprise, though, that the antics of Truffaldino and his gang can come off as both wildly entertaining and occasionally tiring. This is a production pitched at a very high level (EMOTIONS AND LINES ARE SPOKEN IN ALL CAPS!), and rightly so, but I it would have helped the show’s flow had Hatcher and Landi shaved 15-20 minutes off the show’s two and a half hour running time. There is one too many mix-ups, one too many asides, one too many outdated Vaudevillian jokes (“She’s incognito?” “No, she’s in Venice!”).
The cast and co-directors Crystal Brian and Drew Scott do their best to overcome any shortcomings the adaptation might have and succeed with flying colors. For every joke that fell with a thud there was four others that landed perfectly and plenty of intricately staged comedic set pieces that the audience went wild for. During the course of the show, Silvio’s father Dr. Lombardi uses various endings to the idiom “only a fool rides off in a horse called…” The horse is called anger and hubris and a few other things. But I end this review with my own version: Only a fool rides off in a horse called ‘a Servant of 2 Masters” without a big grin on their face.
Note: In the sake of full disclosure, I am a graduate of Quinnipiac University and was a
a very active member of their theater department. I have worked with a few members of the cast and creative team of “Servant of 2 Masters” before.