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For the final production of its 10th season, Piccolo Theatre chose Carlo Goldoni’s centuries-old “Servant of Two Masters,” a play whose Commedia dell’ Arte style is right in the Piccolo’s wheelhouse.
While playwright Goldoni’s disdain for actors’ taking too many liberties with his “Servant…” led to the demise of the improvisational elements of northern Italy’s commedia tradition for roughly 200 years, theatre companies such as the Piccolo still produce the play with the old traditions in mind and improvisations by the actors at the forefront – playwrights be damned.
Improvisation in commedia does not mean a bunch of actors winging it on stage night after night. Rather, a large, well-trained ensemble versed in the style ensures a fresh performance each time, while sticking to a thoroughly outlined plot, stock of characters, masked performances and definitive themes – such as, in this case, the separation of classes.
The convoluted plot entails the servant Truffaldino (Omen Sade, an acrobatic and energetic newcomer to the Piccolo) finding himself on the deceitful side of things (something often reserved for members of the upper class) when he offers his services to Beatrice (Denita Linnertz), pretending to be her slain brother. He does this to collect on a debt owed to him (ah, there’s the elite deceit) by Pantalone (Kevin Lucero Less), upending an already accepted marriage proposal from Silvio (Glenn Proud) to Pantalone’s daughter, Clarice (Deborah Craft).
When Beatrice’s lover, who is also her brother’s murderer, Florindo (Tommy Venuti), shows up, Truffaldino winds up becoming his servant, creating a snowball of lies and confusion. The cast, including Piccolo regulars David W.M. Kelch, Vanessa Hughes, Nicole Keating, Ben Muller and Berner Taylor, serve up laughs written and created out of thin air, such as sitting in the lap of an audience member.
Director John Szostek (also Piccolo’s artistic director) has an uncanny ability to navigate lengthy, dialogue-heavy, action-packed plays, giving his actors the freedom to explore while reigning in the chaos just enough. The result is a kinetic exploration of the art of performance instead of a free-for-all melee.
Here, Mr. Szostek employs Foley sound effects and allows his sideline chorus to laugh at the action, commenting on a lighting miscue or an improvised line of dialogue that serves as a saucy double entendre, only to have their training validated with a flawless plate toss or aerial acrobatics involving Mr. Venuti and a dinner table. This successful venture is another testament to Mr. Szostek and his cast’s love of performance.
“Servant of Two Masters” runs through April 9 at the Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main Street in Evanston. For tickets, call (847) 424-0089 or visit www.piccolotheatre.com.