PROVO — In the eighteenth century, Carlo Goldoni led an effort to reform commedia dell’arte and make it a respectable art form once again. His efforts finally led him to write his most famous and enduring play, The Servant of Two Masters. The current production by BYU’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts proves why this play has continued to be performed for over 200 years.
The play begins with the engagement celebration at the home of Pantalone for his daughter Clarice to Silvio, son of Doctor Lombardi. This is interrupted when the servant, Truffaldino, enters to announce that his master, Federigo Rasponi of Turin, has arrived. This comes as a shock to all as Federigo is believed to have been killed by Florindo, his sister Beatrice’s lover. Federigo has been promised Clarice’s hand in marriage. However, Federigo is actually Beatrice in disguise come to Venice to claim the dowry promised by Pantalone. Florindo, meanwhile, has escaped Turin where he was accused falsely of the murder of Federigo and is seeking a servant. Truffaldino meets him and decides to try his hand at serving two masters at once. Mishaps and mix-ups escalate until finally Beatrice and Florindo each believe the other to be dead and the suicidal pair is brought face to face by chance. Relieved, they decide to return to Turin to buy Florindo’s freedom. Clarice and Silvio can again be married, Beatrice and Florindo plan to be married, and Truffladino’s ruse is exposed when he seeks the hand of Smeraldina, Clarice’s maid, forcing him to reveal that he has been servant to Beatrice and Florindo at once.
Director Stephanie Breinholt has created a bright, light-hearted world for these characters to inhabit. From the opening introduction to the curtain calls, her vision for the work is cohesive and consistent. The action moves at a quick pace and keeps the actors on their toes throughout the show, but particularly in the second act during the dinner scene until the end of the show. The scenic design by Eric Fielding is wonderfully comic. I especially enjoyed the “windows” in the set, which were put to great use during the dinner scene. Costume design by Lyndi Mecham helped define the characters and further Breinholt’s comic vision of the play. The use of bright fabrics and patterns worked well to help delineate the stock characters from the commedia roots, such as the bold plaids of Pantalone’s suit.
The star of the show is, of course, Truffaldino, played by the delightful Spencer Hunsicker, who has a wry smile and twinkle in his eye that is instantly endearing. Hunsicker plays the fool with such panache that it is clear that there is a great deal of thought behind his performance choices. Hunsicker also has excellent comic timing and creates great humor with just a glance. Equally endearing is Heather McDonald as Smeraldina. Her scenes with Truffaldino are great fun to watch, and her speech to Silvio when Clarice threatens to harm herself to prove her love for Silvio is powerfully sardonic. Melanie Anne Gardner as Beatrice does well portraying a woman in disguise. Her accent is a little difficult to understand at times in the first act, but seemed to become more intelligible as the show progressed. I also have to say how wonderful the ensemble cast is for this show. The six actors who portray the townspeople and provide the musical accompaniment for the show were magnificent; I especially enjoyed the entr’acte.” Without giving anything away, it was a great way to get back into the show after the intermission.
A few things didn’t work as well with the show. The musical accompaniment, while great fun and inventive, was at times too loud to allow for the dialogue to be heard clearly above the music. Clarice’s dress, while lovely during most of the show, proved to be a bit too short in one scene when she was being carried around by Pantalone. If it has just been a little longer in front that problem would have been avoided. Really, these are minor concerns in a show that very funny and well-rehearsed.
The night I attended was the final dress rehearsal before opening and had that fact not been announced before the show began, I would have thought I was attending a tight, well crafted performance. The Servant of Two Masters was a well-conceived and executed production. I must also say a word about the work of Janine Sobeck, the dramaturg for the production. This is the second BYU production I have seen with the expanded programs that make use of the 4th Wall dramaturgy blog (http://4thwalldramaturgy.byu.edu), where audience members can find a wealth of information about the process of creating the play. The blog is a great addition to the printed programs and adds to the overall experience. I applaud BYU’s work in this area.