Some shows you just hear the name of or see a poster for and they scream “Comedy!” or “Tragedy!” or “Musical!”. In the case of A Servant to Two Masters at the Pittsburgh Public, it screams “Italian!”. There’s a cartoon image of a heavy man with bright rosy cheeks trying to hold all kinds of Italian food: pizza, spaghetti, some cheese with a knife in it. All that’s missing is a speech bubble coming out of his mouth saying “Mama Mia!”. The pre-show (and post-show) music is full of Italian gems and you half expect to see a gondola go by out on Penn Avenue. At first glance it may look to belabor every stereotype imaginable, but at its heart Servant to Two Masters is a funny and energetic piece.
The story takes place in Venice during the 60’s. Young lovers Clarice and Silvio are set to be engaged, but their merriment is interrupted when a man Clarice was once promised to shows up to claim her. This “man” is actually his sister Beatrice, who seeks the dowry from Clarice’s father so she can pursue her own lover, Florindo. Florindo (on the run) also shows up in Venice and quickly employs Truffaldino as his personal manservant. The shrewd and hungry Truffaldino is already employed to “Beatrice-as-a-man”, but attempts to serve both of his Masters to make more money and gain more meals. Confused? That’s understandable. But no one has a harder time keeping up with everything than Truffaldino himself.
The original Italian play was written over two hundred years ago by Carlo Goldoni, hence the plot elements of someone being betrothed to someone else and the use of servants. This production uses a more recent adaption penned by Lee Hall. While the script is humorous at times, the real laughs come from the creative direction of Ted Pappas and the strong comedic talent in the cast. All the characters are big and dramatic (“Italian!”), and even the smallest of moments are turned into opportunities for comedy. Heartbroken lovers don’t just cry and walk offstage; a dramatic orchestra piece starts playing as the character bawls, screams, and leaves the stage, totally destroyed. Musical numbers make scene changes fun, adding a bit of tambourine-playing or opera (“Italian!”) while the set’s turntable turns. It walks the line between silly and stupid, but scores more laughs than groans.
Jimmy Kieffer owns the stage as Truffaldino, a charming and incredibly clever doofus. Truffaldino constantly screws up his orders, but when it comes to thinking on his feet there’s no one quicker. Mr. Kieffer scores small laughs in his asides to the audience (“You know I’m making all this up, right?”) and large laughs in his ability to milk a moment. His performance is hilarious to watch and also leaves you feeling exhausted for him. The rest of the cast puts in some great performances as well, from the swagger of David Whalen’s cocky Florindo to Jessica Wortham’s nerve-wracked Beatrice. Daina Michelle Griffith scores laughs and pro-feminist applause as snarky maid Smeraldina, while Patrick Cannon gives his lungs a workout as the emotional and constantly-screaming Silvio (“Italian!”).
One could still argue that the play is a giant collection of Italian clichés, but the design of the show makes it more of a flattering comic strip. The background set drops are simple black and white sketches, providing just the idea of a street in Venice or a fancy hotel. The characters, in their bright and colorful costumes, stand out against this background. The effect (bright loud characters with a simple background) make the piece look like something you’d find in the Sunday funny papers. Even the violent scenes in the show are accentuated with slapstick sound effects so to say “don’t take this violence seriously, it’s funny.”
A Servant to Two Masters is a silly time and hey, did I mention it’s “Italian!”? The cast and crew have done a good job at making a very old story accessible and humorous. It’s a nice palette change from last month’s very serious Diary of Anne Frank. The production never asks for anything to be taken seriously in Servant (unless I misunderstood, Florindo actually killed a man but nobody seems really bothered by that). There are plenty of sight gags, big performances, and great energy that keep the laughs coming. There “may” even be a sing-along at the end (I’d tell you what song it is, but it would warrant another “Italian!” joke).
A Servant to Two Masters
Presented by the Pittsburgh Public Theater
Directed by Ted Pappas
Written by Carlo Goldoni, Adapted by Lee Hall
Designed by James Noone (scenery), Amy Clark (costumes), Kirk Bookman (lighting), Zach Moore (sound)
Starring Bill Buell (Pantaloon), Patrick Cannon (Silvio), Daina Michelle Griffith (Smeraldina), Jimmy Kieffer (Truffaldino), Erin Lindsey Krom (Clarice), Scott Robertson (Dr. Lombardi), Bob Walton (Brighella), David Whalen (Florindo), Jessica Wortham (Beatrice).