The master of servant

Bartlett Sher brings commedia to life.


Seattle Center, Intiman Theatre, 269-1900 $10-$40.50 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. ends Sat., Oct. 27

SOMETHING SHIMMERS about Intiman Artistic Director Bartlett Sher's The Servant of Two Masters. It isn't the accomplished technical ornamentation here that stays with you so much as it is Sher's radiant and quite moving ability to tap into a text's specialness. Goldoni's classic piece of commedia dell'arte is handled with a reverent irreverence.

The evening begins with the actors wandering onto the stage en masse as both Goldini's ensemble and ours, flickering in a candlelit show-within-a-show while they warm up for another night of tomfoolery. We are soon treated to the familiar unfolding of commedia contrivances. Truffaldino (Dan Donohoe), the piece's harlequin, tries to juggle his increasingly complex servant duties between two unsuspecting employers: Beatrice (Elisabeth Adwin, smart and engaging), who is in disguise as her dead brother in order to collect his debts, and Florindo, Beatrice's long-lost love, played with marvelous gusto by Frank Corrado ("God-DAMMIT, I like you!" he tells his crafty new employee).

Some of the spirited cast are having the sort of big, goosey time that Dorothy Parker once called "ham's holiday": The ensemble loves itself in a way that may not work for everyone. A game R. Hamilton Wright pretty much comes off as just a goofy guy with a funny voice as chef Brighella, and, curiously, even the appealing Donohoe (so perfect as the harlequin of Seattle Rep's gorgeous The Game of Love and Chance a couple of seasons ago) is a bit caught in the halting dance between classic fool and current Jim Carrey. (Laurence Ballard, however, as the literally overstuffed Il Dottore, is a scream).

Yet Sher has made a genial, classy affair out of bug-eyed emoting and throaty affectations. The production respects its conventions before joggling them; its wink-wink self-consciousness is true to the lighthearted spirit of the original text (delightfully adapted by Constance Congdon from Christina Sibul's translation). The show successfully celebrates everything that could have killed it: playful anachronisms, indulgent broadness, and antiquated comic violence. The result is bright and fleet and funny—and raucously funny beyond that way in which everybody pretends commedia is automatically a laugh riot simply because it's hundreds of years old and features a man pratfalling in pointy shoes.

An inherent tenderness floats to the surface whenever comedy is done this gaily and so well. "Everything is confused," Jeff Steitzer's beleaguered Pantalone says in the midst of all the romantic chaos; "Everything is enchanted," responds Truffaldino. Sher's Servant understands, and blissfully reinforces, the big-hearted humor that is most enduring in a brutal world.

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