'Servant' does commedia proud
By Damien Jaques Journal Sentinel theater critic
February 28, 1999
The commedia dell'arte style of theater may be an acquired taste for most
Americans, but everyone can appreciate actor Lee Ernst's mastery of it.
The enthusiastic standing ovation the Milwaukee Repertory Theater audience
gave Ernst and his colleagues for their production of "Servant of Two
Masters" Friday was every bit deserved.
Those theater-goers saw a bravura performance quite unlike anything they
had previously experienced in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.
The show opened Friday.
"Servant of Two Masters" was written by 18th-century Italian playwright
Carlo Goldoni in a distinctive regional style,
commedia dell'arte. Broad physical comedy performed by stock characters
whose specific movement and gestures were more important than the lines
they spoke was a part of northern Italian culture. The style had significant
influence on Western theater and comedy.
Goldoni's plays have survived, but their American productions are neither
frequent nor particularly proficient in the commedia style. Few American
actors have the training to be authentic commedia performers.
Ernst and his colleagues in the Rep's "Servant"
cast are the exception to that. The company imported director Paolo
Emilio Landi and commedia trainer Fabio Mangolini from Italy to prepare
the acting ensemble and stage the play here. Landi and Mangolini are recognized
as international experts in commedia dell'arte.
With costume designer Santi Migneco, they have
brought the real thing from Italy and enabled the Rep to give us a taste
of the authentic style.
It is essential to know that commedia is not about plot, although one
can clearly see the seeds of Shakespearean story lines in "Servant" --
mistaken identity, separated lovers, a woman masquerading as a man, a
fool attempting to do the undoable. Commedia is really about everything
but the plot.
Gags, wisecracks, sly sexual references, acrobatics and elaborate costumes
are important elements. "Servant" is a comedic melodrama, with the actors
often delivering their lines, embellished by flourishes, to the audience
rather than each other. Some actors wear partial masks.
This production includes a bit of vaudeville. Meatballs are juggled, trays
balanced, and the first act ends with Ernst's character, Truffaldino,
catching plates being thrown at him from four different angles.
Truffaldino, the servant, is a traditional commedia character, and he
is the center of the play. Part Crazy Guggenheim from the old "Jackie
Gleason Show," part Jerry Lewis and part Jim Carrey, Ernst plays him as
an eccentric clown, perhaps a bit slow-witted but always game and sweet
natured. He is in perpetual motion, displaying odd little physical tics
Like all good clowns, a tragic undertone is part of Truffaldino's persona.
"Servant" is structured as a play within a play, performed by a nomadic
band of commedia actors, and the actor who plays Truffaldino is seriously
ill. In the truest tradition of "the show must go on," he gives the performance
of his life.
During his 20 years of acting professionally in Wisconsin, Ernst has given
more than one performance of his life, and this Truffaldino is among them.
While he doesn't get to use much of his typical sensitivity and romantic
sweetness in this role, his facile ability with this difficult and foreign
style of highly physical acting is nothing short of brilliant. The large
cast supports him with a marvelously gleeful and enthusiastic spirit of
theatricality and fun.
© Copyright 1999, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All rights reserved.
of two Masters
Paolo Emilio Landi
MILWAUKEE REPERTORY THEATER
The boat moving on the scene weights 4 tons. Packed with actors and props
the weight is 5 tons ca.
The actors transform the boat into a stage in 5 minutes and 10 seconds.