by Frances Edstrom, columnist
There are some great comic actors in the Great River Shakespeare Festival Company, and I’ve seen some great comedies there over the years.
This season’s “Servant of Two Masters” is at the top of my list of all-time belly-laughers. It is an old play by Carlo Goldoni, in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, written in 1746.
Goldoni, who wrote the play in an effort to freshen up the commedia, which he felt had become trite, would highly approve of this adaptation of his play by Beth Gardiner, who also directs it. Commedia consisted of a handful of stock characters, played by itinerant actors, who ad libbed their way through roughly outlined story lines. In Gardiner’s adaptation, there is a deftly written script, with, it seems, room for the actors to do some bits of their own.
“Servant of Two Masters” begins with a troupe of present-day actors trying to decide which of their repertoire to perform. They embrace the audience and encourage participation. Then the action begins. It is a story of a servant, who — you guessed it — is serving two masters, and hopes they don’t find out about each other. Two masters, two salaries, two of each meal a day!
Unfortunately for him, it turns out the two masters are lovers, and are searching for each other. It is complicated by the fact that one of the masters is a woman disguised as a man.
So, there is a lot of mistaken identity, hilarious contemporary jokes in the dialog, from Shakespeare to Eminem, and fast-paced action on the stage. And, for those who are put off by Shakespearean language, this is definitely like listening to your neighbors, the really funny ones.
The servant is played masterfully by company member Silas Sellnow, who spares nothing in the role. The servant’s name is Truffaldino Battochio, which means “Little Swindler Blink-of-an-Eye” (according to a reviewer of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey).
Sellnow’s physical comedy and elastic face (he gives a mean evil eye) engage the audience from the beginning. Audience members especially could barely come up for air during the scene in which Truffaldino is trying to serve dinner to his two masters in two different dining rooms, without giving away to the innkeeper, played exquisitely by Victoria Nassif, that he is splitting one enormous meal into two portions.
There are three love stories going on at once, which, it being a comedy, end, well, I can’t tell you.
Truffaldino has his eye on the innkeeper, Brighella, and vice versa. Pantalone, played by Chris Gerson with his usual mastery and charisma, is father to Clarice, a young girl, played by Gracie Belt, who perfectly plays the part of the willful daughter/brat. Clarice is in love with Silvio, an earnest young man played to a tee by Daniel Stewart. Belt and Stewart were in the apprentice acting company in 2018, and have now been brought into the professional company, where they deserve to be. Beatrice, played by Leah Gabriel, is dazzling in her disguise as her dead brother — don’t ask; you have to be there. She is in love with Florindo, who also happens to be in love with himself. Florindo is played by a bewigged Andrew Carlson, who has outdone himself in this comedy, a hard thing to do.
All of the actors have amazing talent and physicality and perform so intensely and comically that we were surprised at how quickly the hours flew by.
Costumes, sound, lights, props, sets — all perfect.
In fact, with all that brilliance on the stage and off, the only thing that surpassed them all was the adaptation of the play itself. I can’t imagine it won’t become a stage favorite, no matter how many others try to adapt it so well.
Tickets may be ordered online at grsf.org, at 507-474-7900, or at the box office at the Winona Visitors Center on Huff Street on the lake.
“Servant of Two Masters” will be playing in repertory through July 27, with four performances off-site. See particulars at grsf.org.