The setup: Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote The Servant of Two Masters, a farce in 1743 -- it employs stock characters from Commedia dell'arte and originally left extensive room for improvisation, but Goldoni rewrote it in 1753 to create the present script.
The version used by Rice is an adaptation by Jack Young based on a translation by Edward Joseph Dent, and it employs many of the comical devices of Commedia dell'arte, including the tradition of punishing a character by beating him, so prevalent that the protagonist here carries a stick with him to facilitate this ritual.
The execution: The lead character is the servant Truffuldino, always hungry, who decides that if he gets a second master, he might be able to double dip in the culinary department. Truffuldino is resourceful but not especially bright, and hasn't learned to read, so complications ensue. Dennis Budde plays Truffuldino in a triumphant performance, filled with energy, amusing body language, engaging good will, and blundering charm.
His first master is Beatrice (Yena Han), pretending to be her deceased brother Federigo in order to collect a dowry, and his second master is Florindo (Justin Bernard). Florindo and Beatrice are lovers, but have traveled separately to Venice and are unaware of each other's presence, though staying in the same hotel.
While Han is hardly persuasive impersonating a man, the concept here is fun, not verisimilitude. Han is vivacious, and gives a delightful performance. Bernard has a smaller role, and fills it with appropriate style.
The dowry is to be collected from Pantalone (Jake Krauss), father of Clarice (Ashley Torres), who had been engaged to Federico. After Clarice learned of Federigo's death, however, she became engaged to Silvio (Buddy Brown), and now finds herself with two fiancés when Beatrice returns as Federigo. Krauss is excellent as the father, and has added an amusing walk to his performance. Brown as Silvio is tall and handsome, well-cast for the romantic lead. Torres fills her role well, but unfortunately is compelled by the script to weep and shriek at considerable length in Act One, resulting in an irritating, one-dimensional delivery, though the script does grant her a reprieve in Act Two.
Sam Pearson portrays Dr. Lombardi, Silvio's father, and creates an entertaining character, and Molly Hurley plays Smeraldina, a maid who falls for Truffuldino, and he for her. Hurley is beautiful, and captivating, and lights up the stage whenever she enters.
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Clayton Drazner and Kiryl Novikau portray various waiters and porters, and do deftly and in synchronization when required. The plot, such as it is, chiefly involves keeping the two masters apart, with Truffuldino increasingly confused as packages or letters are intended for "his master" without identifying which one. It may come as no surprise that romance prevails, with a triple wedding in sight as Clarice is free to wed Silvio when the Federigo impersonation is revealed, Beatrice and Florindo find each other, and Smeraldina accepts Truffuldino's proposal.
The set by Mark Krouskop is very attractive and functions smoothly. The costumes by Clair Hummel are interesting and appropriate, with Truffuldino clad as a jester. Christina Keefe directed admirably, and keeps the pace fluid and the humor flowing, in the best Commedia dell'arte tradition.
The verdict: A farce several centuries old retains its rich humor and amusing portrayal of the foibles of human nature, in a sparkling new production.
The Servant of Two Masters continues through November 22 at Rice University, Hamman Hall, 6100 Main Street, Rice Boulevard, Entrance 20 & 21, November 16 at 3 p.m., November 20 to 22 at 8 p.m., $10, students $5, 713-348-7529, arts.rice.edu