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Truffaldino (Mark Bedard) decides to take a break, thinking it may help keep him out of trouble. - Photo by Jenny Graham

OSF's 'Servant of Two Masters' is a play within a play

The central conceit of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new production of "The Servant of Two Masters" is that a troupe of actors is struggling to put it on during bad economic times. How bad? So bad that the company is reduced to borrowing and recycling props from other OSF plays, past and present.

There is a swatch of costume from last year's "Coriolanus," a trunk from this year's "Henry VIII," and so on. Actors in this commedia dell'arte adaptation at the OSF's New Theatre even propose to fight duels with ballpoint pens until one shows up with a flashy sword — and explains that he got it at the nearby Bowmer Theatre, as if they're eating higher on the hog over there.

There is an actor who longs to play Don Quixote, whose story will be presented by the festival this summer, and another who works the concession stand in the lobby at intermission.

When the actor playing the traditional role of Pantalone complains that hey, he doesn't see this many budget cuts in "the Scottish play" ("Macbeth," which the OSF is presenting all year in the Bowmer), another deadpans, "You mean 'Brigadoon'?"

All of this transforms Carlo Goldoni's farcical 18th century masterpiece into a play-within-a-play. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact it's totally in keeping with the commedia tradition of acting companies finding local color and issues and working them into the act. One suspects that dramaturg Lydia G. Garcia had her hands full — and had a blast.

Director Tracy Young, who created this world premiere adaptation with Oded Gross from a translation by Beatrice Basso, was evidently intrigued with the idea of doing more with less in these times, which is also squarely in the spirit of the original commedia troupes. These mobile theaters moved from town to town in 16th to 18th century Italy, setting up shop in local marketplaces and presenting improvised plays with stock characters built around themes of love and jealousy.

This production, presented in the round in a clever design by Richard Hay, is filled with bad puns, breakfast food references, candy, bad Clint Eastwood impressions, ballpoint pens, the traditional English pudding known as spotted dick and origami dinosaur eggs.

It is also filled, of course, with lazzi, the well-rehearsed comic bits usually performed by the Zanni, or clown characters, but requiring practiced familiarity and crack timing from the entire company. A truly spectacular lazzo involves Truffaldino (Mark Bedard), who is perpetually hungry, serving a six-course dinner to both of his masters, each without the other's knowledge, with much running up and down the aisles, playing catch with food, and juggling.

This time out, Truffaldino, the servant of the title (he is the son, perhaps, of Arlecchino, or Harlequin, whose spiritual descendants run from Charlie Chaplin to Bugs Bunny to Bart Simpson) sets out to serve two masters — and presumably get double pay and double rations. One master, "Federigo," is actually Federigo's disguised sister, the beautiful Beatrice (Kate Mulligan). The other, the vain Florindo (Elijah Alexander), has fled Turin after killing the real Federigo in a duel over the honor of Beatrice, whom he loves.

Now, originally promised to Federigo was the lovely Clarice (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), who was to marry the fiery, poetic Silvio after Federigo's "death." But Clarice's father, the greedy Pantalone (David Kelly), feels obligated to his original deal, so that wedding is off.

This is classic commedia, with the young lovers, or innamorati, wanting to marry, and the elders, the vecchio, Pantalone and Il Dottore (Richard Howard) as the obstacles. The vecchio wear the traditional half-face masks, and the whole production must have been a field day for costume designer Christal Weatherly.

The fourth wall is constantly broken, with actors involving audience members in the show, doing four-way asides and performing from platforms Hay has had created above the entrances.

Commedia is highly physical. Kelly and Howard define their characters with crabbed movement and exaggerated tics. Anderson's Clarice is a dim bulb of a ballet dancer. Alexander gives the good-looking Florindo an elaborate hand flourish. Eileen DeSandre plays Brighella, a stolid shopkeeper, with a restrained Gothic fury that eventually bursts forth in hilarious mock horror. And Bedard delivers a bravura performance in a highly demanding, super-physical role.

Even without the timely frame story and the topical stuff, this would be a terrific show. As it is, it is brilliant, and contains perhaps a hint of something beyond the laughs. In the end, all these flawed, familiar, deeply human characters need is each other, and an audience to perform for.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478, or emailbvarble@mailtribune.com.

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