Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) deserves better than he usually gets. He wrote tragedies, tragicomedies, and comedies — first in Italian, later in French — and helped inject vitality into a flagging commedia dell’arte tradition. Though quite popular, he drew unfavorable comparisons to other playwrights. His second-worst critic, rival Carlo Gozzi, accused Goldoni’s plays of lacking charm and imagination. The attack became so brutal, Goldoni left Italy for France, never to return. But even there, Goldoni couldn’t escape his worst critic: himself. No matter what he wrote, and he penned some splendid farces, he would say, “Good, but not yet Molière.”
Goldoni’s receiving both respect and verve at Lamb’s Players in a new version of The Servant of Two Masters. The intermissionless piece could use tightening here and there, but it makes for an always lively, often quite funny, entertainment.
San Diego audiences see so many, we sometimes forget what’s at stake with a world premiere. There is no ground plan. You can’t look back and say, well such-and-such did the scene this way, or so-and-so pitched that line low and away. Every moment is brand new.
With Servant, Lamb’s has a bit of a roadmap. Goldoni wrote the farce in 1753 for Antonio Sacco, the Zero Mostel of his day. Sacco played Truffaldino, a starving servant who ends up multi-tasking for two masters, disguised Beatrice and the macho Florindo. Goldoni left portions of the script blank so Sacco could improvise lazzi : jokes or business, performed in an exaggerated, commedia style, to keep the party rolling.
Along with creating modern equivalents for Goldoni’s shenanigans, Lamb’s has turned Servant into a musical: book and lyrics by McFadzean, music by Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Lamb’s adds another rinse: the cast’s eight principals are four married couples in real life: Deborah Gilmour and director Robert Smyth; Geno and Nancy Snow Carr, Nick and Rebecca Spear, and Lance and Colleen Kollar Smith.
The farce takes place in Venice. Mike Buckley’s set includes the backdrop of a canal, and the four-piece band dresses like gondoliers in red-and-white-striped T-shirts. The open area downstage becomes, in no time at all, Geno Carr’s playground. He plays Truffeldino (the name change to “truffle” underscores a recurring food motif) and cavorts with lazzi. Carr deftly shows that the most burdened character in the commedia, the servant, is the freest actor on stage.
A basic requirement of a lazzi: it must be repeatable. The production has a tongue-twisting, “who’s on first” set of directions that Carr begins and others must repeat, even faster. It’s an ongoing bit that, unlike most ongoing jokes, grows funnier.
Wordplay is one of the show’s strengths. Rebecca Spear’s dense Clarice spews malapropisms, “a vast suppository of wisdom,” being one of many. McFadzean also offers a definition of “vegetarian” that’s so funny the critic’s code won’t allow me to repeat it.
Jeanne Reith’s color-wheels of costumes match director Robert Smyth’s bombs-away style: both rely on explosions. Given the production’s over-the-top breathlessness, Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s music at times lulls the proceedings. The songs aren’t weak, in and of themselves (and “The Longer I Live” is quite touching), but many feel toned down in comparison to the jitterbug pacing and childish aura.
In his notes to The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams says Tom, the narrator, can take “whatever license with dramatic convention [that] is convenient to his purposes.” Director Sean Murray and Cygnet Theatre have Tom (i.e., the young Tennessee) exist outside the play in a separate room, where he sips whiskey and taps out the script on a typewriter. The choice requires an adjustment. But though it occasionally upstages some speeches, it makes artistic sense.
Much harder to justify are Francis Gercke’s excessively mannered choices as Tom. He waves his hands and indicates signs for things (say the word heart and he touches his). He’s deliberately engaging and courts the audience’s favor, even though Williams says Tom must “act without pity.” Gercke also employs an ongoing habit: not stopping at the end of the sentence. He plows through periods as if they were green lights. One result: key lines often lose emphasis (and respect).
Gercke’s overstated affectations are all the more annoying because the production has such quality elsewhere. Andy Hull’s spare set’s appropriately cramped, as if the walls — even the invisible ones — were closing in. Shirley Pierson’s costumes are pure period. Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound and George Ye’s background music are unobtrusive and effective. And Michelle Caron’s expressionistic lighting works wonders, as when she makes the glass menagerie gleam like diamonds.
Rosina Reynolds paints a many-sided portrait of Amanda Wingfield. She re-creates the stages of a life, in fact, going backwards from encroaching despair to her jonquil-scented youth. Brian Mackey hits all the right notes as the Gentleman Caller, who takes his self-help sales pitch too close to heart. And Amanda Sitton, obviously, was born to play Laura. Sitton has a remarkable way of seeming barely there, wraithlike, and yet fully present emotionally. Throughout she’s as fragile as Laura’s figurines. ■
The Servant of Two Masters, book and lyrics by David McFadzean, music by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, from the comedy by Carlo Goldoni
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth: cast: Geno Carr, Robert Smyth, Rebecca Spear, Nancy Snow Carr, Nick Spear, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Colleen Kollar Smith, Lance Smith, Jesse Abeel, Bryan Barbarin, Catie Grady; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Nathan Peirson; sound, Patrick Duffy; choreography, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through November 20; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Rosina Reynolds, Francis Gercke, Amanda Sitton, Brian Mackey; scenic design, Andy Hull; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Michelle Caron; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood; composer, George Ye
Playing through November 13; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525