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An intimate evening with The Amorous Servant

It’s not often you get to see some vintage 18th-century Italian comedy in Toronto, so The Amorous Servant, translated from Carlo Goldoni’s La Serva Amorosa (1752) and directed by John Van Burek, is a treat for buffs of the commedia dell’arte’s most skilful playwright.

The project is obviously a labour of love for Van Burek, who takes a small role as the Notary. His fluid but faithful English version of the play has sat unproduced for years, despite some money for the translation from David Mirvish. Looks like some of that Miss Saigon cash got back to starving artists after all.

This play, like Goldoni’s most famous work, A Servant of Two Masters, takes the standard commedia dell’arte characters—clever servants, hapless masters, scheming parents, and idiotic children—and weaves a complicated plot of deception and confusion before love wins out in the end.

The Amorous Servant opens with the merchant Pantalone (David Calderisi) trying to intercede with wealthy old Ottavio (Jerry Franken) on behalf of Ottavio’s son Florindo (Nicolas Van Burek), who has been driven from his home by Ottavio’s scheming new wife Beatrice (Nikki Pascetta) and her foppish son Lelio (Richard Zeppieri).

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When that fails, and Florindo is about to be written out of his father’s will, Florindo’s faithful, but much-maligned, servant Corallina (Christine Brubaker) takes it upon herself to restore her and her master’s fortunes, expose Beatrice’s treachery, and play matchmaker for Florindo and Pantalone’s beautiful daughter, Rosaura (Alicia Johnston).

Brighella (Patrick Garrow), Pantalone’s servant and Corallina’s counterpart, and Arlecchino (Dov Mickelson), Ottavio’s dim-witted servant, round out the cast.

The broad, exaggerated style affected by all the players takes a bit of getting used to, but the genre demands it. Indeed, the most successful characterizations come when the cast (like Goldoni himself) straddles the fine line between farce and genuine feeling.

But there are times when the humour rings hollow, especially during the beatings of children by parents or of servants by masters (another genre convention). If anything, they are too stylized and light-hearted to work, as great comedy springs from emotional, and often physical, brutality. Quick, who’s the funnier patriarch: Basil Fawlty or Mike Brady?

The production deserves credit for doing its best with limited means. The sparse set is a bit wobbly and makes for some cramped staging, but canvas screens and lighting cues evoke the different rooms and households well. The bland piano music is rather unnecessary, at times distracting, and perhaps anachronistic—wouldn’t bland harpsichord music be more appropriate for the 18th century?

All in all, however, The Amorous Servant is a worthwhile treatment of an under-appreciated play. It proves that you don’t have to schlep to Stratford or The Shaw to see a vibrant new revival.

The Amorous Servant runs until December 11 at the Artword Theatre.


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