By GWEN OREL
The Servant of Two Masters
By Bonnie J. Monte
Translated and adapted from the play by Carlo Goldoni
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
The Greek Theatre at 2 Convent Road (Convent Station), Florham Park
Through July 29
The soft clouds over the hills of the Greek Theatre go from orange to pink to gray. The pine trees, taller than the stage, gradually turn black against a dark blue sky. If you take off your sandals, the grass in the amphitheater is soft and silky. Fireflies pinprick the blueness, and the scent of flowers and audience perfume wafts by.
Onstage, Italian music plays, in between scenes on a gold and red set full of sliding doors, as mixed up lovers and a too-clever-for-his-own-good servant go through their paces.
When the noise of a plane overhead drown out the words, actors cry “Gondoliere!” and pretend to be in a gondola, waving at the shore, while “O Sole Mio” plays. The Venetian joke makes sideways sense, since Goldoni’s play “The Servant of Two Masters,” translated and adapted by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, is set in Venice. As soon as the plane is gone, the scene takes up exactly where it stopped, and the audience applauds.
The loveliness of an early summer night isn’t the only reason to enjoy Shakespeare Theatre’s latest production: the farce is charming, even dear; and the actors are energetic and appealing. But the perfection of a summer evening at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ), where they’ve even lightly sprayed the house to keep off bugs, and offer bug wipes and fans at intermission, seems part of the theatrical mise en scene, one with the smart and happy show.
STNJ encourages audiences to bring picnics and eat ahead of time, and on Sundays there is a 4:30 p.m. twilight show. “The Servant of Two Masters” outdoors at STNJ is one of the treats of a New Jersey summer. STNJ first presented the show in 2010. The 18th-century play is in the style of commedia dell’arte, using stock characters for actors to do “lines of business:” the lovers, the wily servant, and so on.
Goldoni wrote this play for an actor who wanted a great role, and a great role it is. Truffaldino (James Michael Reilly) is always hungry, always making up stories, and lovable throughout. He ends up serving two masters when he agrees to serve Beatrice (Izzie Steele), disguised as her dead brother, Federigo. She has come to Venice to seek her lover, Florindo (who killed her brother in a duel. She doesn’t seem to mind, so you shouldn’t either). Florindo (Tug Rice) has also fled Turin for Venice, and Truffaldino decides to serve him too. A subplot is that the dead brother Federigo was betrothed to Clarice (Miranda Rizzolo), who wants to marry Silvio (Russel Sperberg) instead. Federigo turning up alive throws a wrench in those plans (of course, it’s really Beatrice).
It all sounds more complicated than it is. In the service of farce, the two lovers stay at the same inn, owned by Brighella (Connor Carew) unaware of one another. Of course, Silvio takes Florindo for the man Clarice loves.
The fun of the show is Truffaldino’s endless invention, and his asides to the audience, which are sometimes pleased, sometimes baffled, sometimes perplexed. His courtship with pert servant Smeraldina Aurea Tomeski) simply delights.
Director Doug West keeps things moving briskly, and stages the asides that often actors jump off the stage, address the audience and then jump back on again:
Master: “I feel adrift in a sea of confusion.”
Truffaldino: “I’m inventing this as I go along.”
Master: “I never know if he’s lying or not.”
Truffaldino: “I never know if he believes me or not.”
At one point when Truffaldino is stumped he talks quickly to the audience for help, even saying, “I thought we were friends!”
Some of the slapstick with inn servants confuses more than amuses, but it goes by quickly. West gets hilarious and yet truthful performances across the board. Reilly’s skinny, hapless Truffaldino makes a romantic, lovable clown; Steele’s Beatrice is a bada**, tough, smart and loyal; Rice’s Florindo is almost smarmy– which is a terrific choice, his gallant lover has personality and aplomb, and Sperberg’s immature Silvio, matched by Rizzolo’s weepy Clarice, evoke sympathy as well as laughs’ and Tomeski’s pert Smeraldina shows heart and smarts. The more thankless adult roles all play their lines-of-business to perfection, including Carew as frustrated Brighella, Raphael Nash Thompson as Dottore Lombardi, Silvio’s Latin-spouting dad, and Jay Leibowitz as Pantalone de Bisognosi, Clarice’s somewhat greedy, long-suffering and finally decent dad.
Costumes by Paul Canada are happy and lovely, with servants dressed in checked outfits as befits the harlequin figures, and lovers dressed to match. Clarice’s red shoes with white tights turn her into a budding rose. The set, by Jonathan Wentz, with its Italian golden stone tones harmonizes with the landscape.
It’s a place you’ll want to be.