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JCarlo Goldoni's best-known (at least to Anglo-Saxon audiences) comedy was, in keeping with the commedia dell'arte tradition of the day, not so much written as prescribed. In 1744 the actor Antonio Sacchi, known for his playing of the comic prototype Truffaldino, commissioned Goldoni to concoct an appropriate plot for his company. In commedia fashion, Sacchi's players improvised the dialogue and comic business for The Servant of Two Masters... and this is where Goldoni's own plot thickens. Four years later, emulating his idol Molière, the youthful playwright transcribed the production, effectively reversing the timeworn process.
The commedia approach is alive and surprisingly well in Kenny Gannon's Peace College Theatre production of The Servant of Two Masters. The playbill lists no author other than Goldoni, and I assume that this spirited and often wildly amusing take on the piece is the improvisatory work of Gannon and his (largely) superb company of farceurs. They ought to have taken a credit. They deserve it.
The production is a raucous mélange of pop culture references, borrowings (both judicious and in-), in-jokes, running-gags, demented arias, comic athleticism so inspired it borders on genius, and an overall zaniness for its own sweet sake — a kind of classical Helzapoppin — what kids today call "a goof." Gannon and Co. take in everything from Airplane! and Margaret Mitchell to (repeatedly) interpolations from "The Sopranos" and Francis Ford Coppola, with admittedly varied results: much of it lands, some of it doesn't. But, as in those early, cherished Marx Bros. movies, things move at such a heady clip that the clinkers are scarcely over before the next fusillade assaults you.
Goldoni's comic premises are, like those of Plautus, full of tropes and stereotypes. Thus: the conniving servant, the lovesick swain, the heroine in trouser role, the idiot bride-to-be, the bumptious father. These roles are so beautifully cast here, and played with such dazzling abandon, that you can't tell where direction ends and virtuoso playing begins.
Accompanied by the musicianly aplomb of Randy Reed (guitar) and Paul Minnis (accordion), a cast of comic tornadoes blasts its way across Thomas Mauney's delicious pastel set and, to mix my metaphors, takes no prisoners. Only Margaret Ellen Shouse seems less than game as the transsexualized Beatrice. Nicole Solimano plays exasperated waiter and back-sassing "plot device" with equal brio. Niki Dobbins is apposite as Clarice, both spoiled and resilient, and Sarah Thomas is smart and slightly punk as her maidservant Smeraldina (although she's almost a better match for Clarice's beloved Silvio — played here as a would-be j.d. by Sarah Virginia Smith — than for the wily Truffaldino). Terrell Williamson is baffled and ardent in turn as Beatrice's beloved Florindo.
Three performers here deserve special mention. Mary Kathryn Tyson is marvelous as Clarice's much bedeviled father Pantalone, at once harried, combative, and given to grandiose sentimental vocalizing. As the excitable Dr. Lombardi, Gina Kelly is possessor of the production's greatest comic mask: a little Sonny Corleone here, a bit of Luca Brazzi there, all bound up in a face that can contort itself from eye-squeezing malice one moment to rubber-mouthed astonishment the next.
Kathryn Fuller is, simply, astonishing as Truffaldino. Although intermittently shrill, sometimes tiresome, and — with her Megan Mulally-like voice — occasionally unintelligible when especially frenetic, Fuller is something very like a force of nature. She has the supreme confidence of a master clown, tossing off prodigious feats of histrionic (and athletic) legerdemain without breaking stride or letting us know she knows how funny she is. She has complete control, even as various parts of her body seem to fly off in several directions at the same time. I've only seen one other comic performance as singular and inspired as this one in the past year — Meghan Beeler in Tintypes — and that was also at Peace. Is it something in the water over there, or is Kenny Gannon some kind of genius?
Second Opinion: Oct. 6th Chapel Hill, NC Front Row Center review by Alan R. Hall: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html; and Oct. 6th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods: http://indyweek.com/durham/current/woods.html.
Peace College: http://www.peace.edu/.