'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 and gestures.
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.

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Copyright 1999, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All rights reserved.



Servant of two Masters


Carlo Goldoni


Directed by

Paolo Emilio Landi



Scott Bradley



Santi Migneco


Performed at the



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.