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'Two Masters' push historical envelope

October 22, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

In 1747, Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni presented "The Servant of Two Masters," a play that attempted to reform the disreputable street theater idiom called commedia dell'arte by purging it of its anarchic improvisational elements.

In 1947, Italian director Giorgio Strehler brought glorious anarchy back to "The Servant of Two Masters" in a staging for his Piccolo Teatro di Milano that kept suspending Goldoni's text for quasi-improvisational outbursts of song, dance and all manner of disreputable commedia-style comic indulgences.

Previously seen by local audiences in 1960 and 1984, Strehler's staging is back -- this time on the UCLA Live series at the Freud Playhouse, where it opened Thursday.

Preserved by Ferruccio Soleri and Stefano de Luca since Strehler's death eight years ago, it remains a miraculous fusion of brilliant directorial insight, inspired physical comedy and a peerless sense of style.

And it's capped by 75-year-old Soleri's career-defining performance as Arlecchino. Watching him tear the wings off an imaginary fly, pop out of a trunk looking like a puppet, fish a piece of bread from his own stomach or burst into feverish flamenco, you're as deeply in touch with a whole arc of theater history as if you were seeing Kabuki in Tokyo, Petipa in St. Petersburg or Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon. No wonder Strehler eventually added Arlecchino's name to the play's title: In his leather mask and colorful patchwork suit, this traditional commedia character keeps derailing Goldoni's tale of mixed-up romantic alliances, surviving every crisis that he generates through a series of desperate improvisations.

These improvisations become the crux of the play, and the most extreme comes in Act 2, when Arlecchino must serve dinner to two bosses in two different rooms at the same time. Suddenly the performance becomes a delirious ballet of careening waiters, flying plates and jiggling pudding.

However, the sharpest direction and performances can be found in expository dialogue scenes, when breakneck speech, the inventive use of props and the epic confrontation of stereotypical characters fills Ezio Frigerio's charming trestle-stage with frenzied plots and counterplots.

Franca Squarciapino's costumes provide the key to everyone's nature or function and encourage the larger-than-life performances on view. Paolo Calabresi blusters as Dr. Lombardi. Stefano Onofri whines as Silvio. Sara Zola simpers as Clarice. Enrico Bonavera stutters as Brighella. Giorgio Bongiovanni endures abuse from nearly all of them as Pantalone. And Soleri scampers through the melee trying to please the equally addled Beatrice (Giorgia Senesi) and Florindo (Sergio Leone) while also wooing the saucy Smeraldina (Alessandra Gigli).

Supertitles help you sort it all out and allow Gigli to get a big ovation when she declares that men make the laws so women always get blamed. That's about the only message you'll find in "Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters," other than the implicit warning to never, ever try to suppress or reform improvisational Italianate vitality -- because, even if it takes two centuries, it will always, indomitably bust loose.


"Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters"

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood

When: 2 and 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $38 to $55

Contact: (310) 825-2101,

Running Time: 3 hours (two intermissions)

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