Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Servant to Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni adapted by Lee Hall

By Joe Straw

Sunday is the day to take my girls to church, and then to lunch, pick up the dry cleaning before they close, do some odds and ends, and then take them home to their mother.

My suggestion, after lunch, was to walk in one of Culver City’s nice shaded parks. But Sophia always grumbles about any form of physical exertion. I convinced her that it would be nice to amble through the park and get some badly needed exercise.

“Only if there are no bugs.” she groused.

Unexpectedly, we came upon Free Theatre in the Park at Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park (10400 Braddock Drive in Culver City) where actors were in the second half of "The Odyssey" by Blake Anthony Edwards.  (This show starts at 12:00 noon on the weekends and runs through August 19, 2012.)

My girls and I sat down on the grass, in the cool shade, to watch Ulysses flail his body about on and off the stage.  Not bad and fun.  There were approximately 150 people, mostly in comfortable lawn chairs, and they seemed to enjoy themselves.

I asked the girls if they wanted to see the next show.  They said yes.  The next thing I knew - I had a problem. "A Servant to Two Masters" started in 30 minutes.  And in order to get there (on time) we had to cram a lot of personal stuff in a very short time span.

So, running to the car was the first order of business.  

Overly careful not to get photographed by the Culver City’s automated traffic tickets we zipped over to Cinema Cleaners where there is never a line but on this day tons of people. 

One elderly lady was actually going through each piece of clothing and pointing out the bloodstains on multiple shirts.  The man behind the counter was slowly putting red tape near the blood spots.   

After the lady serial killer was finished we ran to the car, hopped onto Jefferson, to Overland, and over to Yogurtland.  Only enough time to grab the yogurt, and a few (and I mean few) toppings with the assortment of gummy bears, M & Ms, and every other unhealthy thing a child can put to healthy yogurt.

But Yogurtland was crammed with people.  Time was running short.  With little time left we ran a full sprint past L.A. Fitness (weren’t they impressed) through the parking lot to Robeks for the juice that will give you brain freeze on really hot days if your are not careful.  And generally I am not.  

With tops on the juice, and into the hot car, we fly to Braddock, park a block away from the park (always crowded on theatre days) and with two minutes to spare we make it.

L - R James Clark, Christine Breihan, Eric Bilitzer, Faith Streng

Culver City Public Theatre’s Free Theatre in the Park presents A Servant to Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni in a new adaptation by Lee Hall directed by Ron Geren.

The play is set in Venice, California to give it that familiar setting we know and love with the action-taking place in a single day in a room in the house of Pantaloon.

Silvio (Stephen Steelman) is offering his hand in marriage to Clarice (Jessica Plotin).  Clarice, shy at first, has her hand taken by Pantaloon (Eric Billitzer) and presented to Silvio.  Each promises their undying love.

Dr. Lombardi (Dean Figone), Silvio’s father, muses that there is no going back on it.

Smeraldina (Faith Streng), the maidservant, to Clarice wishes her the best and Brighella (Carol Vandergrift) an innkeeper is told that she will have the honor of being a witness to the wedding.

Silvio doesn’t want much only to be near his love Clarice. (Sweet.)

“Yes, that’s the best of all foods”. – Smeraldina

Pantaloon thinks Clarice wedding will be a match made in heaven and it happened rather suddenly.

“…for had it not been for the death of Federigo Rasponi, my correspondence at Torrance, I had promised my daughter to him.”

Uh Oh. Problems.

Clarice was not even introduced to Federigo but she would have married him in obedience to her father. (Even in modern day Venice, CA, go figure.) Perhaps it was better that the groom to be, Federigo, got himself killed. 

His death was a terrible misunderstanding between his sister and another man.  

Brighella knows Federigo and his sister as well.  She spent time with them in “Torrance.”  She says his sister dressed as a woman and rode horseback like a man.  And Federigo loved her more than anyone could love a sister.


Suddenly, there is a knock at the door.  Smeraldina says there is a gentlemen’s servant “who desire to give you a message”.

Truffaldino bursts into the house and says that his master, Federigo Rasponi of Torrance, is downstairs and would like to have a word.

“Away!  You must be mad.  Signor Federigo Rasponi of Torrance is dead.” – Pantaloon

It seems that Truffaldino has recently taken the job of servant all in the hopes of getting food. He is a man of insufficient means and he is hungry. He uses this time to delay the entry of his master in the hopes of acquiring something to eat first and secondly a maiden.

Beatrice swaggers in natty dressed as her brother Federigo Rasponi of Torrance.

Immediately Brighella recognizes her as Beatrice (as does the entire audience for gosh sakes) but no one else on stage does. (Bad eyesight or maybe just being too polite. See Dustin Hoffman reference as Tootsie in earlier reviews.)

So Brighella and Beatrice try to keep things under wraps while Beatrice squeezes the dowry money from Pantaloon and gets away.

Silvio says that Clarice is to be his wife.

“But Frederigo will never consent to take a bride who has given her hand to another.” – Silvio

“Oh, I am not so fastidious.  I will take her in spite of that. (Aside) I mean to have some fun out of this.” – Beatrice (as Federigo)

Meanwhile Truffaldino is outside waiting for his master to come and get him.  By this time he is starving and waiting for someone to give him some money or food, whichever comes first.  He comes upon Florindo (Michael Hovance) wearing a “villain” t-shirt who is unsatisfied with his present servant (also Eric Billitzer), refuses to pay the going rate, and kicks him face first out the door. (Sounds like Romney and Bain Capital.)

“Have you a master now?” – Florindo

“At the moment – to tell the truth, I have not.” -  Truffaldino

“You are without a master?” – Florindo

“You see me, sir.  I am without a master. (Aside) My master is not here, so I tell no lies.” – Truffaldino

So for the sake of getting food Truffaldino hopes to get two salaries and enough money to buy food. But because he is none too bright and has two masters he is constantly at odds with others asking to speak with his master.

Beatrice tries to swindle money, which she thinks is rightfully hers to help her lover.   Silvio fights for his love, Clarice.  Florindo searches in vain for his true love, Beatrice.

There are a lot of wonderful things in this production, a lot of misdirection, and just a whole lot of fun.  The actors worked hard to overcome the noise of planes flying overhead, helicopters, wind, sun, noisy squirrels, and manage to succeed on many levels.

And just because actors are working in plays in the park doesn’t mean they are away from prying eyes.  We’ll find you here too and make notes of your talents and throw them to the winds.

L- R Dean Figone, Eric Bilitzer, Jessica Plotin, Stephen Steelman

James Clark plays Truffaldino.  He has a marvelous voice and an English or Cockney accent that does him well. As the character he is funny but sometimes loses sight of his objective, the food.  The dinning scene needs a lot more work.  Overall, it was a very good performance.

Christine Breihan plays Beatrice/Frederico.  As Frederico she swaggers in as though she has an appendage between her legs and the “reality factor” is at a new low.  But, that said, as Beatrice she was very engaging and committed to her craft, and has a lot of creativity that brings the show to life.  I especially liked the fight scene between her and her antagonist. Overall it was a fantastic job.

Michael Hovance was very capable as Florindo.  He has a nice voice that carries throughout the park. But as the character he was wearing a “villain” T-shirt. This is probably not a good idea as the first reference of a character with which we are not familiar. Oddly enough, from my vantage point, I saw him behind the stage, scrounging for food and water.  He was padding across the grass, going here and there, quietly thinking about his next morsel. Seeing his quest for food backstage I thought he would have made a great Truffaldino.  

Eric Bilitzer plays Pantaloon.  As the character he had a cane, which didn’t do much for the character, didn’t add, probably subtracted from his objective. (What does having the character’s inability to get around have anything to do with his objective?)  Glasses would have been the better crutch, because he couldn’t tell that Frederico was in fact a woman. Possibly an exploration of that character to get to the truth would have served him better.  Also, he is a man of considerable wealth and I didn’t get that at all. There is a lot going on with this character that needs further exploration that involves money, wealth, lawsuits, and so on.

Dean Figone did a good job with Dr. Lombardi.  It worked on a number of levels, the doctor, in a golfing or summer outfit standing up for his son and demanding the marriage be consummated. (Okay, he could have been more demanding.) But also there is something in his character that doesn’t want to take this action to an extreme.   Get the job done but don’t hurt anyone in the process. I liked the performance as the first waiter, a slight Latino or Italian accent?  I couldn’t tell.   Overall, this was a job well done.

Jessica Plotin does a nice job as Clarice.  This is a character one can go to extremes.  She’s in love with Silvio but is betrothed to Federigo.  She has an extremely hard time justifying her love for her future husband and honoring her father. It is a tug of war of sorts, being pushed and pulled ad infinitum. She gave a nice performance but needed a stronger conflict.

Stephen Steelman did a very nice job as Silvio. There were a lot of good things one can carry away from his performance: the fight scene, the argument, the hurt, the loss of a beautiful maiden was all part that made a wonderful characterization. On this particular day a bug, the size of small wallet, flew in front of his face, causing him to improvise.  Still, he did a nice job.

Carol Vandergrift plays Brighella.  Oddly enough the innkeeper was written as a man. Still, she keeps Beatrice a secret for a personal gain.  I’m not sure that gain was realized in the end.

Faith Streng did a nice job as Smeraldina although it is a slightly odd characterization.  She, in fact, is a housekeeper but in actually a servant to Clarice to do Clarice’s bidding.  But didn’t see much of that in her characterization. On stage, she seemed slightly annoyed of having to do anything related to her job.  Still that is her job.  A pouty characterization doesn’t take her anywhere.  Waiting in the wings to come on I notice a vastly different person, beautiful, confident, stunning creature that was somehow diminished the moment she stepped on stage. If marriage is her objective so that she can leave this household she better do everything she can to get herself married to whomever will benefit her in life, the doctor, the master, or any other male worthy of her exciting looks.

Ron Geren directs this play and overall it is a lot of fun. Still with all of the improvisations going on I get the feeling this play takes place over four days and not the one day it is intended to be. The dinning scene was a mess and did not work.  Perhaps this was cleaned up on the following days. The asides work to a degree but what was missing was the depth of the characters, the hurt, the strong objectives, and a stronger focus of the directors through line. The point he wanted to make. It’s not enough to have characters run around on stage they all must have a purpose and a strong desire to carry out purposeful objectives.

Heidi Dotson the President of Culver City Public Theatre and producer says the players have a six week rehearsal period and are required to help out in the mantling and dismantling of the set. They do yeoman’s work for little in return just to work on their craft and possibly have their names mentioned.  

Actors do what they need to do to keep their creative spirit alive.  The Culver City Public Theatre keeps that exciting process going and in turn provides the Culver City community with excellent family friendly theatre.

To date Culver City Public Theatre’s Free Theatre in the Park is terribly underfunded and needs your support.  For more information go to their website at and give generously. 

Also, in The Matchmaker by Thorton Wilder, I saw some terrific performances by Michael Hanna (Cornelius), David Narloch (Malachi Stack) with a wonderful characterization, and Jason Rector (Barnaby) who has a marvelous voice and a very nice look. 

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