SAN DIEGO — In the 18th Century, the prolific Carlos Goldoni, who wrote 250 plays in his 86 years, fought to change the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte tradition by bracing them with realistic and even moral qualities.
In the charming, high-spirited United States International University production of "The Venetian Twins," playing through Sunday at The Theatre in Old Town, not only do director Andrew Barnicle and his talented cast prove that the war was won at no cost to humor, but they also play as an argument that he who stays in character longest gets the last--and best--laugh.
It is fitting that the fountain at the center of "The Venetian Twins" is reminiscent of the one on the set of this summer's "The Comedy of Errors" at the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
"The Comedy of Errors," while a much older, complicated and wiser tour de force, draws on the same device of long-separated twins who, unknown to each other, end up in the same city and are mistaken for each other by the women, servants and merchants in their lives.
Although the fountain in "The Venetian Twins," with its cherub spouting water from, well, a rather comic place, seems to promise a more slapstick production, the twist is that the sincerity of the acting in the midst of the silliness makes this student production the much funnier play.
At the head of the 20-character cast, Adam Pelty plays both Tonino Bisognosi, the witty twin, and then--with one trouser leg pulled up, a bow tie and a goofy expression--his foolish but wealthy brother, Zanetto.
The minuteness of the costume change makes the acting that much more impressive. When Zanetto talks about himself as being handsome, we laugh because the awkward Jerry Lewis-like fellow is so silly looking; no one would think of so mocking the handsome Tonino.
Pelty gets fine support from Laura Kelly as Zanetto's fiancee, the ingenuous Rosaura, and Danielle LoPresti as the colorful Beatrice, Tonino's fiancee, who is a film star. (As part of some judicious updating by Barnicle, the play takes place in 1962.)
With a nod to "The Jeffersons" School of Domestic Help, Velma Austin walks off with many a scene as the sassy maid, Columbina, as does Sean Marlow as the easily offended, black-booted Lelio, a minor film star with the temper of Sean Penn.
Thomas J. Vannucci is uncomfortably artificial as the overly made-up, hunchbacked servant, Brighella. It's the one unfortunate lapse in Juan Lopez's subtle and gently humorous costume design.
Louis Seitchik provides the dark, intense villainy called for as Pancrazio, Zanetto's rival for Rosaura's love. Gerard Gravallese is bright and appealing as Zanetto's servant and Columbina's suitor, Arlecchino, but Thorsten Kieselback lacks intensity as the love-crazed Florindo.
In one of many deft, subtle touches, Beatrice's comical retinue of manicurist, hair stylist, photographer, makeup artist and porter includes Bob Mack as an Italian widow with the faint, dark shadow of a mustache.
John Berger designed the elegant, aged-looking set with its faded movie posters, and Deborah Rosengrant the nicely shadowed lighting--a lovely wrapping on a gift of a show.
Performances at 8 p.m. through Sunday, with a Sunday matinee at 2. At The Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.