Lazzi Come Home

Truffaldino Says No isn’t really a commedia dell’arte play, nor an adaptation of one. It is, however, about commedia stock characters, and what happens when one of them decides that he doesn’t want to be a guy who keeps doing the same thing over and over anymore.

Brian Herndon and Stephen Buescher in Truffaldino Says No. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Ken Slattery’s comedy originated as a 10-minute short written on the assigned topic of “Arlecchino” as part of the PlayGround writers’ pool, which was showcased in the 2009 Best of PlayGround festival. Then the company commissioned a full-length version, which now makes its debut as a coproduction of Shotgun Players and PlayGround, in lieu of Shotgun’s usual outdoor summer show. This one’s an indoor show at the Ashby Stage that’s not part of Shotgun’s subscription season.

Arlecchino and his son and sidekick Truffaldino are doing the typical work of a zanni, or trickster servant, in a typical commedia. They’re acting as messengers between the various people trying to arrange the marriage of the ingénue Isabella—the posturing Capitano, who needs a wife; her miserly father Pantalone, who wants to marry her off to the rich and elderly Dottore; and the swooning young poet Flavio, her true love—and getting everything mixed up with predictably hilarious results. But Truffaldino is discontented. He doesn’t want to play the fool anymore.  He’s in love with Isabella, his master’s daughter, and he doesn’t see why he should have a chance to woo her just because it’s not his assigned role to do so.

Arlecchino is hurt and confused by Truffaldino’s desire not to be like him. He also has no time to indulge it, because there are wacky misunderstandings to mix up. His mother, the savvy Colombina, encourages the boy to go out and try new things, confident he’ll come back. All the other stock characters are shocked at Truffaldino’s sudden refusal to enable their endless routine, and Isabella certainly isn’t entertaining the advances of a servant whose name she’s never bothered to learn. But his departure to seek a new life in the New World plants a seed that makes them question whether things have to always play out the way they’ve always played out.

Stephen Buescher is hilarious as Arlecchino, inhabiting the physicality of the role masterfully. A monologue in which he tries to think of some way to kill himself while idly playing with a rope (not making the connection between the two) is a comedic tour-de-force.

William Thomas Hodgson keeps up admirably with the various commedia routines, or lazzi, as Truffaldino, but he also feelingly portrays the young man’s malaise, confusion and romantic frustrations. When Truffaldino rips off his comic mask to reveal the sensitive young man below, it’s effective precisely because he’s fully both of these things, the clown and the man.

Having the only two African Americans in the cast play the old zanni and his son who dreams of being more than a servant—a doctor, maybe, or a soldier—gives Truffaldino’s desire to be more than he’s told he can be a bit of extra resonance, though in a way that’s more sobering than humorous. It’s a clever touch, however, that the only other things he can think to be are the other stock characters he grew up around.

Gwen Loeb makes a delightfully earthy and sensual Colombina, who in one hysterical sequence brings herself off just by wiggling her fingers in the air. Michael Phillis is pricelessly fluttery as the young lover Flavio, who’s in love with the idea of love but terrified at the idea of actually getting close to his supposed beloved. Ally Johnson’s squeaky Isabella is an entertaining flibbertigibbet, all dramatic poses and outrageous Italian accent.

Andy Alabran is a bundle of nerves as Il Capitano, the strutting Spanish soldier who fears that Turkish invaders might lurk behind every bush. Though not nearly as stooped as one expects the miser Pantalone to be, Brian Herndon makes the old man’s miserly calculations and lust for Colombina’s bosoms very amusing, and his squawks of distress are priceless. Joe Lucas’s Il Dottore is charmingly befuddled and pedantic, and when the others takeoff to follow their bliss or to follow each other, he’s delighted to be left on his own so that he can finally rattle on endlessly about academic minutiae without anyone telling him to stop.

So Truffaldino travels from Venice to Venice Beach, California, where the commedia character Brighella now runs an inn. There are a couple of not very interesting stops in London and New York along the way, portrayed in darkness with stereotypical locals haranguing him in voiceover. When he gets to California he finds that the cast of characters at the inn are almost exactly like his friends and family back home, so much so that he mistakes them for their counterparts, despite their brightly-colored 1980s clothes and lack of masks. The difference is, instead of commedia dell’arte stock characters, now they’re American sitcom stock characters, complete with unfunny but oft-repeated catchphrases.

Brighella, the heart of the group and solves all their problems, has suddenly died, and now they need a new innkeeper. (A beloved local solo performer plays Brighella in the delightfully cheesy sitcom intro that starts act two in a video by Colin Trevor, complete with a jaunty theme song by Dave Malloy.)

Buescher’s Arlecchino is now Hal, a clumsy doofus on the hotel staff who keeps falling down the stairs and getting into trouble. Loeb’s Colombina is Kate, the level-headed front desk clerk who views the antics around her with wry amusement. The young lovers are valley girl Debbie and the fickle swimming-pool lifeguard Mike, who keeps breaking up with her and hooking up with other girls, though he can never keep track of what order he does those in.

Lucas’s Wiseman is a disheveled, abrasive know-it-all with a padded belly, and Herndon’s Frank is a penny-pinching, cantankerous long-term guest (and self-described dick) who keeps trying to get Hal fired. Alabran’s Capitano has become Colonel Prewitt, a paranoid and overzealous security guard obsessed with Mexicans sneaking in—and of course when Italians like Truffaldino or his family come along, he can’t tell the difference.

Some of the new characters are pretty amusing (especially Phillis’s petulant Mike), but in every case, the commedia characters are funnier than their sitcom doppelgangers. That’s not terribly surprising, because everyone’s being very faithful to the style of a typical ’80s sitcom, and those things were terrible.

Director M. Graham Smith’s world premiere staging is high-energy and fast-paced, and for the most part the physical comedy is executed with excellent timing. There were a few rough patches on opening night, such as a sluggish fight between Alabran’s two characters, but there were also a few gasp-worthy moments of sharply engineered switcheroos. Some of the sitcom stuff was on the flat side, but that’s at least partly inherent in the material.

Maggie Whitaker’s genre-appropriate costumes are perfect for both acts, with bright commedia garb for the Old World (where the star attraction is Emilia Sumelius-Buescher’s masks) and gaudy ’80s getups for California. Martin Flynn’s set of an elegant renaissance piazza translates surprisingly well to a hotel courtyard with minimal alterations.

The second act has its ups and downs, and at two-plus hours the whole thing feels maybe half an hour too long, but things come to a head beautifully after all the commedia characters come to town. The actors deftly bounce back and forth between roles with some deft quick-changes and clever optical illusions, especially when they have to play both characters in the same scene. As a celebration of fluffy, formulaic entertainment old and older still, Slattery’s play cleverly sends up their conventions at the same time that it happily wallows in them.

Truffaldino Says No
Shotgun Players
Through July 29
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #63 of 2012, attended July 6.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment