A new ethic for theater everywhere is established by Murray Ross in his production of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, which runs through May 11 at TheatreWorks.
It's this: Food, once inserted in the mouth of an actor, should go in one direction only; that is, downward, as in swallowed, no matter what.
Under no circumstances should it be chewed or half-chewed, then spat onstage, or dug from the mouth by finger and rolled into little balls, downstage center, to be offered to the audience in some incomprehensible lunge at humor. A stubborn and intractable gag catches in the laugh mechanism of the spectator that may not release itself for days, as evidenced by the on-the-spot moaning of Ross' audience. All subsequent routines, songs and attempts to charm or coax amusement in a show are hobbled or tainted thereafter.
So, artistic and executive directors take heed, wherever you might be: Nothing will provoke bad word of mouth about a show quite like food out of mouth onstage.
Incomprehension makes its way into TheatreWorks' Servant in other ways, too.
Betty Ross' costumes, for instance, are straight from the wardrobe closet of Gilligan's Island. And if we weren't told to view the play in a California context, we'd never know from the look of things. I'm talking about Christopher Sheley's large sets (which even in themselves aren't forthcoming about where the scene is actually set) wheeled around between scenes during musical interludes.
Granted, Ross adapted the play from its Italian commedia dell'arte origins to a Frankie-and-Annette California in the '50s, but he lands us closer to Danville, Ill., in the attempt. Can this be the same Ross who so expertly staged David Ives' Venus in Fur only a few weeks ago?
Double the praise, then, for Ross' dauntless performers. They march through a quagmire of under-realized ideas, with heads high and characterizations hearty.
Servant is crowded with enough changing plot lines, and motivations and mistaken identities to stagger Machiavelli, but it is all handled with confident agility and wit, often ad-libbed or improvised.
All revolves around the premise of Truffaldino (Sammie Joe Kinnett), a mischievous freelancing servant, assuming responsibilities for two unsuspecting masters to sate his gluttonous appetite for food. He finds himself intervening in subplots and maneuverings beyond his grasp to fulfill his simple desires, and discovers love for Pantalone's housemaid, Smeraldina.
As Truffaldino, Kinnett displays all the cunning of an alley cat, constantly landing on his feet, and Eryn Carman as Smeraldina wins as the show's only character of any warmth or sincerity.
Michael Lee as the relentless Silvio, never letting up in his pursuit of marriage to Pantalone's daughter, is the most vivid, and perhaps truest-seeming Californian of the Venice Beach locale. He unites the hoodlum upstart out of his element with (going way back now) that bearded hipster of Dobie Gillis, Maynard G. Krebs, generating a wholly original creation.
As for Mark Cannon and Steve Wallace as waiters in Pantalone's chaotic household, they stand out in a series of pratfalls and acrobatics, Cannon possessing, as he did recently in THEATREdARTS' A Clockwork Orange, real Buster Keaton-type magnetism.
Also, little extras Ross has worked into his adaptation do go a long way toward keeping the production afloat. The songs are all delivered with tuneful sympathy for the originals by his cast, and range tastefully from the Beach Boys to Bobby Darin and girl-group favorites. He gives each actor at least one opportunity for over-the-top, cartoonish histrionics, and they come through with flying colors.
Perhaps it's a quotation from the late California poet Charles Bukowski that best describes a rule of thumb, not only for discriminating food management onstage, but for any commedia-style adaptation anywhere:
Style is the answer to everything
A fresh way to approach a dull or a dangerous thing
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.
Style. If only it were as easy as a trip to the produce section.