The Public Powers Through ‘A Servant to Two Masters’
In basketball you often see a big, brawny guy (or gal) playing the power forward position. That player is called upon to literally power through the traffic around the hoop—grabbing rebounds, muscling the ball into the basket, and generally dominating the area.
Jimmy Kieffer fits the profile. Kieffer’s website lists him at 6-5 and 260, nearly identical to the former NBA great Charles Barkley. And as they used to say of Sir Charles, he plays bigger.
Which may help explain why Pittsburgh Public Theater recruited Kieffer, a veteran comic actor, for the title role in A Servant to Two Masters. The play is an unusual one. It’s a modern adaptation of an old (1746) Italian comedy by Carlo Goldoni, which itself was an adaptation of an even older comedic form: commedia dell’arte, an exceedingly raunchy style of early slapstick that was popular in Italy and elsewhere from the late 1500s into the 1700s.
Since true commedia was done as improv by traveling troupes who improvised entire shows around a set of buffoonish stock characters, Goldoni’s Servant is one of the few surviving scripted relics of the form. Today it has become a vehicle for theater companies that want to try something new with something old—sort of like the Kustom Kar enthusiast who sets out to chop, channel, and turbocharge a 1949 bullet-nose Ford.
Various companies have tried souping up A Servant to Two Masters in a variety of ways. The trick is to just make sure it runs with bustle and a roar. This is a comedy that relies on nonstop, high-energy confusion steeped in general silliness. And that’s why you need someone like Kieffer. Someone who, to borrow a hoops term, can establish a presence in the middle of the pandemonium.
As for how he plays it and how the whole business runs, those points are better discussed with a bit more context.
A Dab of Brando, a Big Dose of Bedlam
Goldoni’s original A Servant to Two Masters—often translated as The Servant of Two Masters—has been altered in the version at The Public, but the play you’ll see there is not an extreme rewrite. It avoids the massive updating that’s been done in some other productions of Servant, such as packing the dialogue chock-full of modern slang and topical references to current events, movies, TV commercials, etc.
There are exceptions. Early in the play, for example, Kieffer as the servant Truffaldino sighs, “I coulda been a contender.” On the night I went, this use of Brando’s line from On the Waterfront drew knowing laughs from more than a few in the audience. It also set off alarm bells for those of us who would be reduced to sobbing, quivering despair if we had to sit through a couple of hours of mass-culture in-jokes and anachronisms. Fortunately such stuff is used sparingly.
Meanwhile, the plot unfolds. It has elements found in numerous comedies of olden times: Two pairs of lovers wish to wed but are driven apart by odd circumstances. One woman, Beatrice (played by Jessica Wortham), masquerades as a man to set up a scheme for reuniting with her beloved Florindo (David Whalen). Florindo, who’s not in on the con, longs for Beatrice but can’t find her, unaware that she’s a he.
Enter the six-foot-five knave Truffaldino. He has been hired as a manservant by the disguised Beatrice. Seeing a chance to double-dip, he grabs it, offering his services to another guy he meets on the street: You guessed it, Florindo. Multitudes of snafus ensue as the large and duplicitous lackey tries to juggle his duties to both masters, without telling either about the other or really knowing who’s who or what’s up. The rest of the characters add further complications, and that’s the story in a nutshell.
Whether it adds up to a barrel of laughs or only a nutshell’s worth may depend, to some extent, on what you are looking for.
This Ain’t a Talkie
Although it shares such plot devices as star-crossed couples and mistaken identity with a number of Shakespeare’s comedies—which were written much earlier—A Servant to Two Masters is not Shakespearean. Nor does it have a similar feeling to other comedies of the 1700s still being performed today, like Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 classic The Rivals.
For one thing, those plays are more language-driven than Servant. They may include physical comedy and crazy situations, but a lot of the humor is carried by speeches filled with amusing puns, witty comments, and eloquent insults. The same is true of many modern comedies, which, for instance, employ a recurring pattern: A character gets bopped or surprised by something, and it’s a laugh. Then he follows with a wisecrack, and it’s the BIG laugh.
Servant isn’t so loaded with the kinds of verbal twists and jabs we’re used to getting our yuks from. (At least in translation it isn’t.) The comedy here comes mainly from characters just being absurd—by taking their emotions and body language over the top, by rubbing each other the wrong way in the right places, by getting into fixes they can’t fix—and it depends on the comic principle of building and maintaining momentum for silliness.
To What Shall We Compare the Play?
My perception of The Public’s production, from the night I went, was that it came across like an NBA game. The players were out there playing hard and hitting about half the shots. There were hot streaks and cold streaks, with a lot of the fireworks coming near the end. And, in keeping with the shooting percentage, about half of the audience gave the play a standing ovation when it was over.
Scoring was not frequent during the first half (Act 1), due in part to Coach Goldoni’s game plan. He’s crammed a great deal of exposition into the front end, making it tough to run the floor with fast breaks and slam dunks. Kieffer, playing the post …
Okay. That’s enough. I’m dropping the hoops metaphor. In a comedy built around exaggeration much more than nuance, Kieffer has what you might call the most nuanced part. Truffaldino is an insolent trickster who succeeds despite constantly wading in over his head. He opens a letter he shouldn’t be reading, but then again, he can’t read, and now he has to cover his butt by trying to re-seal the letter—that kind of thing.
The role seems made for a wily, wiry type of actor who slithers vulnerably but elusively in and out of jams. Kieffer plays it more like the blundering bear who’s just quick-witted enough to keep yanking his nose out of the beehive, and with his fine sense of comic timing, it works.
Among the other players, Daina Michelle Griffith scores pretty consistently as the maid Smeraldina. It’s a one-dimensional role that calls for heaps of saucy, tart-y flouncing, and she flounces it up good. And in general, this Servant hits its groove in the places where raw ribaldry runs rampant (like the Act 2 scene in which a certain pair of lovers, finally back together, come growling and humping at one another with lust unlimited).
Bottom line? Different strokes for different folks, people. Take a gander and see if your own bottom stays in the seat or gets lifted up in that standing O.
Closing Credits and Ticket Info
Pittsburgh Public Theater presents A Servant to Two Masters in a version translated and adapted from Goldoni’s original by the English dramatist Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay of Billy Elliot. Director is The Public’s Ted Pappas. The play is ostensibly set in 1965 rather than the 1700s, but aside from the costumes, this turns out to be a detail that’s hardly noticed.
Through Dec. 6 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. For showtimes and tickets visit The Public or call 412-316-1600.
Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.