Something remarkable happened at the opening-night performance of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. During Act One the audience was attentive but reserved. Then at intermission the entire audience adjourned to the lobby. It was almost as if they gathered there to take a straw vote as to whether they liked what they were seeing. Apparently they voted in the affirmative, because in Act Two those same viewers howled their heads off.
They were wise to decide as they did, because the production -- a joint effort between ACT Inc. and Fontbonne University -- offers a rare theater treat.
It's easy to understand why some people might be reluctant to attend at all. Molière, yes; Goldoni, no -- despite the fact that their comedies are cut from the same broad cloth. But Goldoni's eighteenth-century Italian romps are so frantic that some stagings exhaust rather than amuse the audience. Nothing drains a viewer so quickly as having to sit through a farce that doesn't know when to quit.
Here overkill is replaced by bonhomie. Even before the play begins, the auditorium is a happy place to be. It's fun to gaze upon Mark Wilson's cheerful set design, which transforms the stage into a bright one-ring circus. When the show starts, you might find it hard to follow the action, not because the litany of foolish foibles (mistaken identity, women disguised as men; the same obvious plot devices Shakespeare used) is unclear, but rather because you'll be unable to take your eyes from the panoply of spectacular costumes. These witty, informative outfits are so extravagant they look as if they might have been rented from the Metropolitan Opera. So to learn that Teresa Doggett spent all summer designing and building this wardrobe boggles the mind.
Doggett also directed the show. She must be some taskmaster, because the evening is a marvel of discipline. Never does the comedy careen out of control; no one milks a laugh for one second longer than the joke warrants. This is a lithe, clean, nimble production -- which is all the more astonishing when you consider the eclectic nature of the translation. This is Goldoni by way of Cole Porter: Anything goes. There are snatches of Shakespeare, opera buffa, kabuki music, Sondheim lyrics, voodoo dolls, juggling Imo's pizza boxes. It all could have gone so wrong so fast, but thanks to Doggett and an understanding cast it never does.
Everyone onstage contributes to the high spirits. Among the standouts, Michelle Hand brings beguilingly macho swagger to the role of the sister who's pretending to be her dead brother. As the father of the groom (there's always a thwarted bride and groom in Goldoni), Christopher Limber lurches from line to line. Every sentence rolls around his mouth as if he's sampling a just-opened bottle of spoiled wine. As the father of the bride, bowlegged Richard Lewis is hidden behind gravity-defying hair and eyebrows that suggest his thumb is perpetually stuck in an electric socket. Then there is Christine Brooks as the saucy maid. Perhaps it's because Servant is set in Venice, but the endearing Brooks is like a kindred spirit to Giulietta Masina, who starred in so many Fellini films. She's a clown on the edge of tragedy.
In the title role of the wheeler-dealer who finds himself in "the servant racket," Charlie Barron is a jaunty, captivating fool. Last month Barron walked away with the St. Louis Shakespeare production of The Winter's Tale. But that was mere prelude to the antics he displays here. Barron (who through much of the evening is ably abetted by the elusive contributions of Al Fresco) is an exemplar of the maxim that less is more; all his energy is focused on the illusion of seeming ease. Even when he's not making us laugh, he's charming us.
Had the production adhered to Barron's "less is more" approach, it would be even more effective. At 2 hours and 45 minutes it's way too long. But if a play is going to run too long, better that it should be too much of a good thing than too much of bad. Even at this length, The Servant of Two Masters is Exhibit A of what can ensue when classic comedy is treated with irreverent respect.