Tucson Theatre Ensemble, just launching its third season, had evaded my attention until now. I wasn't sure what to expect when I was invited to its production of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters, but suspected I'd be seeing the work of a dedicated but amateurish community group.
The good news is that the company's Goldoni show is thoroughly respectable and generally enjoyable. It isn't as polished as productions by the likes of Invisible Theatre or newcomer Beowulf Alley, but there's some good talent at work here, especially in the principal roles. The main problem, aside from some stiffness in the minor parts and a few awkward interactions, is something that could afflict any company: an uneven tone, an uncertainty at the ensemble's various creative levels about exactly what sort of comedy this should be.
The confusion is, perhaps, inevitable. Tucson Theatre Ensemble promotes this as "a commedia dell'arte classic," which isn't quite accurate. Commedia dell'arte developed in Italy in the mid-16th century as a community of improv groups, each one a company of highly skilled actors generating plays on the spot using stock characters and the barest of plot outlines. The stories tended to throb with lust and greed; they'd involve at least one pair of young lovers, a foolish but rich Venetian merchant, a pedantic old intellectual, a puff-chested military officer and a smattering of scheming or foolish servants who propelled all sorts of plot complications. The acting was usually broad and stylized, highly physical; costumes were bright and ridiculous, and most of the actors were masked, as in ancient Greek drama.
Goldoni, whose life spanned most of the 18th century and who during that time produced 150 comedies, took the old stock characters and plopped them into fully scripted stories. Though still formulaic, his plays were less artificial than their commedia dell'arte models. Goldoni was to commedia dell'arte as Joss Whedon's Serenity is to Saturday-matinee space operas like Star Wars: more sophisticated, more mature, more carefully structured and more nuanced of character, while still employing the old familiar archetypes and plot devices.
Tucson Theatre Ensemble isn't quite sure what to do with this transitional kind of work. Director Sharon Lamanda keeps things moving, but the action lacks the zany, intense physicality of the old commedia dell'arte; her actors, by and large, take a more naturalistic approach to their work.
(An unnecessary, halting prologue, which looks to be largely improvised, explains what commedia dell'arte is all about and even shows off several masks, but masks otherwise never figure into this production. The show doesn't need this distraction.)
The story is set, of course, in Venice. The merchant Pantalone (Dan Davis) is about to betroth his daughter, Clarise (Michelle Teta), to her beloved Silvio (Kale Arndt), impetuous son of the stuffy Doctor Lombardi (played by the single-named Chax). But in bursts Federigo, who was previously contracted by mail-order to marry Clarise, until he was killed in a duel protecting the honor of his sister. Only we know that this is really the sister, Beatrice (Angela Nicole), in disguise. She has complex reasons for masquerading as her brother, but she's basically here to get money out of Pantalone as she searches for her lover, Florindo (Gary McGaha), the man who killed her brother.
As if this weren't complicated enough, Beatrice has picked up along the way a servant named Truffaldino (Dave Sewell), whose first allegiance is to his growling stomach. Hoping to make twice as much money and get twice as much food, he simultaneously signs on with Florindo. Of course, no character knows exactly what's up with any of the others, which is the only way this tale can stay aloft for two hours.
Sewell, as the servant Truffaldino--more a fool than a knave--is the spinning mass that sends the others into orbit around him. Sewell is low-key, likeable and fully in control of his character. But we get something completely different from Renee Mumford as Smeraldina, Clarise's servant. Mumford adopts the old commedia dell'arte style, with broad delivery and constant posing. Each approach is legitimate, but not simultaneously; Sewell and Mumford just don't fit into the same production.
Similarly, Nicole Stein, a good and lithe young actress, plays a secondary character named Brighella as a pinched old woman, something out of a comedy sketch, which makes her look stiff and uncomfortable amid the more naturalistic performers. Meanwhile, Angela Nicole, strutting about with a husky voice, isn't really convincing as a man, but she isn't supposed to be, except to the unperceptive figures on stage.
One other disconcerting element: The younger actors, many of whom are UA or Pima Community College students, are by and large quite enjoyable, but they come off as thoroughly American. You wouldn't want them to romp around with phony Italian accents, but they aren't doing much to remove themselves from our society and enter Goldoni's.
The production manages well with its minimal scenic elements and props, but one last component that seems just a bit off is the cueing of the music between scenes. In a fast-moving show like this, it ought to follow hard upon an actor's last line, rather than starting up after an awkward pause while everyone is getting offstage.
If I'm devoting a lot of space to the show's shortcomings, it's only because I think the company and this production are strong enough to hold up to gentle criticism. There's much to enjoy here, and I'll be interested to see what Tucson Theatre Ensemble can do with material that poses fewer interpretive conundrums.