Saturday, June 1, 2024

"The Servant of Two Masters" at Lyric Arts

"On some evening 278 years ago, an Italian audience sat together and had an experience similar to the one you are about to have." So says Lyric Arts' Resident Director Scott Ford about their new production of The Servant of Two Masters, an 18th Century Italian comedy written in the style of commedia dell'arte. It's reassuring to think that as much as our world is vastly different than the world of this play's original audiences, we still laugh at the same things. At double entendres, at pratfalls and physical humor, at overly melodramatic emotions, at mistaken identities and near misses. Ford and his absurdly talented 15-person cast (plus one musician) are having a great time playing around with this classic piece and milking every comic moment, which translates to the audience having a great time too. I do wish the runtime were closer to the two-and-a-half hour mark than the three-hour mark, but take a nap or have a coffee and settle in to enjoy a few hours of classic timeless comedy at Lyric Arts in Anoka through June 23.

Silvio (Alex Stokes) and Beatrice/Federigo (Nykeigh Larson)
duel over Clarice (Katrina Stelk, photo by Molly Weibel)
Lyric is using a 2004 adaptation by local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, responsible for the sharp wit and modern references (although the bit about the Anoka social district was likely added by Lyric). The titular servant is Truffaldino, a servant who comes do Venice with one master and decides to take on a second master for more money (and more food). His first master is actually a woman named Beatrice who is in disguise as her recently deceased brother Federigo, who was engaged to Clarice, now engaged to Silvio. Her goal is to get the money owed to her by the bride's father, and then reunite with her love Florindo, who unbeknownst to her is Truffaldino's second master. (If this sounds like a lot of foreign names and complicated plot points to keep track of, don't worry, the cast occasionally takes breaks to explain things to the audience, with a helpful sign signifying "exposition.") Juggling the two masters is cause for much of the humor and hijinks, as are the two love stories that go through all of the highs and lows before the happy ending.

Brandon Veerman as Truffaldino (with Katrina Stelk and
Madison Fairbanks, photo by Molly Weibel)
There's a bit of fourth wall breaking; at the beginning of the show the actors assemble and prepare to put on a play, even though the star is deathly ill. We see a stage hand, prompter, and other backstage personnel, for a fun play-within-a-play vibe. Everyone in the cast is so funny and over-the-top, in the best way, with lots of screaming and crying and other over-emoting. There's also plenty of physical humor - banging into things, tripping, and a brilliant sequence of plate-throwing. Highlights in the cast are many, but to name a few: Brendan Veerman as Truffaldino, proving he can be just as hilarious with half of his expressive face covered in a mask (you can still see his eyes darting around); Nykeigh Larson with two fantastic performances - the lovesick Beatrice and her stern brother (lowering her voice and altering her physicality); Alex Stokes hamming it up as Silvio (and sometimes as the bored actor playing him); Katrina Stelk with some really impressive wailing as the love-torn Clarice; Madison Fairbanks stealing scenes as Clarice's servant Smeraldina (not above pandering to the audience); and Kyler Chase as the dignified but dramatically in love Florindo.

the cast of The Servant of Two Masters (photo by Molly Weibel)
An essential part of the play is the music, with a small band off to the side providing accompaniment for a couple of songs, an almost constant soundscape, and comedic sound effects (with original compositions by Melissa Bergstrom). This is accomplished by musician Ford Campbell on accordion and bassoon, often joined by cast members Corey Boe and Charlie Morgan, who hop in and out of the band in between playing scenes.

The stage is mostly bare except for a large wooden structure hung with a velvet curtain, that's moved around and used as various locations. The coming in and going out through the curtain is used to great comedic effect. Characters are wearing bright and colorful period costumes - full skirts, tunics, capes, and feathered hats. And of course, per the commedia dell'arte tradition, several actors are wearing beautifully made and almost creepily expressive masks. (Scenic and props design by Michaela Lochen, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow, mask design by Katie Kaufmann.)

With all of the heavy things going on in the world right now, it's a wonderful escape to enjoy some age-old silliness, and be reminded of the unifying and healing effects of laughing together.